Student Debt Slavery: Bankrolling Financiers on the Backs of the Young

Higher education has been financialized, transformed from a public service into a lucrative cash cow for private investors.

The advantages of slavery by debt over “chattel” slavery – ownership of humans as a property right – were set out in an infamous document called the Hazard Circular, reportedly circulated by British banking interests among their American banking counterparts during the American Civil War. It read in part:

Slavery is likely to be abolished by the war power and chattel slavery destroyed. This, I and my European friends are glad of, for slavery is but the owning of labor and carries with it the care of the laborers, while the European plan, led by England, is that capital shall control labor by controlling wages.

Slaves had to be housed, fed and cared for. “Free” men housed and fed themselves. For the more dangerous jobs, such as mining, Irish immigrants were used rather than black slaves, because the Irish were expendable. Free men could be kept enslaved by debt, by paying them wages that were insufficient to meet their costs of living. On how to control wages, the Hazard Circular went on:

This can be done by controlling the money. The great debt that capitalists will see to it is made out of the war, must be used as a means to control the volume of money. . . . It will not do to allow the greenback, as it is called, to circulate as money any length of time, as we cannot control that.

The government, too, had to be enslaved by debt. It could not be allowed to simply issue the money it needed to meet its budget, as Lincoln’s government did with its greenbacks (government-issued US Notes). The greenback program was terminated after the war, forcing the government to borrow from banks – banks that created the money themselves, just as the government had been doing. Only about 10% of the “banknotes” then issued by banks were actually backed by gold. The rest were effectively counterfeit. The difference between government-created and bank-created money was that the government issued it and spent it on the federal budget, creating demand and stimulating the economy. Banks issued money and lent it, at interest. More had to be paid back than was lent, keeping the supply of money tight and keeping both workers and the government in debt.

Student Debt Peonage

Slavery by debt has continued to this day, and it is particularly evident in the plight of students. Graduates leave college with a diploma and a massive debt on their backs, averaging over $37,000 in 2016. The government’s student loan portfolio now totals $1.37 trillion, making it the second highest consumer debt category behind only mortgage debt. Student debt has risen nearly 164% in 25 years, while median wages have increased only 1.6%.

Unlike mortgage debt, student debt must be paid. Students cannot just turn in their diplomas and walk away, as homeowners can with their keys. Wages, unemployment benefits, tax refunds and even Social Security checks can be tapped to ensure repayment. In 1998, Sallie Mae (the Student Loan Marketing Association) was privatized, and Congress removed the dischargeabilility of federal student debt in bankruptcy, absent exceptional circumstances. In 2005, this lender protection was extended to private student loans. Because lenders know that their debts cannot be discharged, they have little incentive to consider a student borrower’s ability to repay. Most students are granted a nearly unlimited line of credit. This, in turn, has led to skyrocketing tuition rates, since universities know the money is available to pay them; and that has created the need for students to borrow even more.

Students take on a huge debt load with the promise that their degrees will be the doorway to jobs allowing them to pay it back, but for many the jobs are not there or not sufficient to meet expenses. Today nearly one-third of borrowers have made no headway in paying down their loans five years after leaving school, although many of these borrowers are not in default. They make payments month after month consisting only of interest, while they continue to owe the full amount they borrowed. This can mean a lifetime of tribute to the lenders, while the loan is never paid off, a classic form of debt peonage to the lender class.

All of this has made student debt a very attractive asset for investors. Student loans are pooled and repackaged into student loan asset-backed securities (SLABS), similar to the notorious mortgage-backed securities through which home buyers were caught in a massive debt trap in 2008-09. The nameless, faceless investors want their payments when due, and the strict terms of the loans make it more profitable to force a default than to negotiate terms the borrower can actually meet. About 80% of SLABS are backed by government-insured loans, guaranteeing that the investors will get paid even if the borrower defaults. The onerous federal bankruptcy laws also make SLABS particularly safe and desirable investments.

But as economist Michael Hudson observes, debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. As of  September 2017, the default rate on student debt was over 11% at public colleges and was 15.5% at private for-profit  colleges. Defaulted borrowers risk damaging their credit and their ability to borrow for such things as homes, cars, and furniture, reducing consumer demand and constraining economic growth. Massive defaults could also squeeze the federal budget, since taxpayers ultimately cover any unpaid loans.

Investing in Human Capital: Student Debt and the G.I. Bill

It hasn’t always been this way. Until the 1970s, tuition at many state colleges and universities was free or nearly free. Education was considered an obligation of the public sector, and costs were kept low.

After World War II, the federal government invested heavily in educating the 15.7 million returning American veterans. The goal of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or G.I. Bill, was to facilitate their reintegration into civilian life. By far its most popular benefits were financial assistance for education and housing. Over half of G.I.s took advantage of this educational provision, with 2.2 million attending college and 5.6 million opting for vocational training. At that time there were serious shortages in student housing and faculty, but the nation’s colleges and universities expanded to meet the increased demand.

The G.I. Bill’s educational benefits helped train legions of professionals, spurring postwar economic growth. It funded the education of 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors and 22,000 dentists, 14 future Nobel laureates, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, and three presidents of the United States. Loans enabled by the bill also boosted the housing market, raising home ownership from 44% before the war to 60% by 1956. Rather than costing the government, the G.I. Bill turned out to be one of the best investments it ever made. The legislation is estimated to have cost $50 billion in today’s dollars and to have returned $350 billion to the economy, a nearly sevenfold return.

That educational feat could be repeated today. The government could fund a public education program as Lincoln did, by simply issuing the money or having the central bank issue it as a form of “quantitative easing for people.” Infrastructure funded with government-issued US Notes in the 1860s included not only the transcontinental railroad but the system of free colleges and universities established through federal land grants.

The exponential rise in college costs occurred only after the government got into the student loan business in a big way. The Higher Education Act of 1965 was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda, intended “to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education.” The Act increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships, gave low-interest loans for students, established a National Teachers Corps, and included a PLUS loan program that allowed parents of undergraduate and graduate students to borrow up to the full cost of attending college. Unfortunately, the well-intended Act had the perverse effect of driving up tuition costs. The availability of federally guaranteed loans allowed colleges and universities to raise their prices to whatever the market would bear. By the mid-1970s, tuition was rising much faster than inflation. But costs remain manageable until the late 1990s, when the federal student loan business was turned over to private banks and investors with aggressive collection practices, converting federally-guaranteed student loans from a public service into a private investor boondoggle.

Meanwhile, in many countries in Europe university tuition is still free, including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Norway, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden and Turkey. But providing an affordable education for the next generation is evidently not a priority with our government. Only 3 percent of the federal budget is spent on education – not just for college loans but for school programs of all sorts, from kindergarten through graduate school. Compare that to the outlay for military spending, including the Veterans Affairs and other defense-related departments, which consumes over half the federal budget and is an obvious place to cut. But there are no signs that our government is moving in that direction.

What then can be done to relieve the student debt burden? Stay tuned for Part 2.


Originally published on

Ellen Brown is an attorney, chairman of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including Web of Debt and The Public Bank Solution. A thirteenth book titled The Coming Revolution in Banking is due out soon. Her 300+ blog articles are posted at

Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming | Nick Hanauer

Published on Aug 12, 2014

Nick Hanauer is a rich guy, an unrepentant capitalist — and he has something to say to his fellow plutocrats: Wake up! Growing inequality is about to push our societies into conditions resembling pre-revolutionary France. Hear his argument about why a dramatic increase in minimum wage could grow the middle class, deliver economic prosperity … and prevent a revolution.

Watch more TED Talks on inequality:

Open a Kitchen at the Omni Commons in Oakland!

$3,235 USD raised by 22 people in 1 day
13% of $25,000 goal


Omni Commons

Omni Commons, Organizer for Omni Commons
Our Story


Three and a half years ago, an historic former Italian social club in the heart of a rapidly-gentrifying Oakland neighborhood was up for lease or sale. Instead of being acquired by a commercial developer, East Bay Food Not Bombs, and several other nonprofits and social justice groups, came together to rent the building. They formed Omni Commons, a horizontally-run, all-volunteer organization using the principles and practices of successful resource commons to support place-based activism, science, technology, art, and community. Omni Commons is committed to members of our community whose lives and work are negatively impacted by rising rents and the displacement of public and community spaces.

This month, we celebrate the one-year anniversary of buying the building by launching the Kitchen Renovation Project!    

A professional kitchen by and for the people…

The kitchen is the heart of the home, and shared meals bring community together. Our vision is to provide a professional kitchen for our member collectives, as well as aligned organizations and individuals who can’t afford the high rents charged by most commercial kitchens in the area. For Omni member collectives, a professional kitchen will increase their effectiveness and reach. Groups that use the Omni will prepare food for events. Small food producers, street vendors and caterers will be able to rent kitchen time to make their products. Everyone in the Omni community will benefit from the increased connection that comes from making and sharing meals.

East Bay Food Not Bombs (FNB), a founding member collective of Omni Commons, has been bringing free food to parks, political events, neighborhood gatherings, and social centers since 1991. Currently FNB volunteers feed hundreds of hungry people 6 days a week. Until now, they have used the basement kitchen space only to store and prep ingredients before driving everything to a separate space to actually cook the meals. FNB envisions the day when food storage, prep, and cooking happen at the same location – simplifying meal logistics and conserving precious volunteer time and energy.

With the new, commercial kitchen on site, Phat Beetz Produce, our other in-house food justice group, will be able to further their goal of a healthier, more equitable food system in North Oakland. Among other projects, they provide nutrition education, training, experience, and income to youth through the Fresh Fellows Program, the Youth Pickle Company, and the We Cater! Collective. Renting commercial kitchen time outside of Omni is a large expense for their program.

Counter Culture Labs’ (CCL) weekly Fermentation Stationmeetup could increase their capacity to rescue local produce for conversion to delicious vinegars, brews, and tonics.


CCL also regularly runs kitchen science and food hacking projects, from Kombucha Genomics, to making mad science cocktails, and culturing cheese ripening bacteria.

Bay Area Applied Mycology, who run a small lab out of CCL, would process the mushrooms they forage and cultivate for both edible and medicinal use.

And one day, the imagination and hard work of the Real Vegan Cheese project could be realized in the marriage between CCL’s lab and Omni’s professional kitchen.

Once we have a kitchen, when YOU use the Omni for an event, you’ll be able to prepare food for it on-site.

The Breakdown:

A cutting-edge, professional kitchen is a very expensive and labor-intensive project to execute, and even more difficult when put into motion by volunteer staff who have day jobs and caretaking labor to juggle. This is why we’ve chosen to break down the full scope of this endeavor into three phases over the next 6 months – each with its own budget, timeline, and plan of action.

This campaign is seeking to finance Phase 1 of the kitchen build-out: Groundwork!

Phase 1: Groundwork – Goal: $25,000

We need to raise a total of $25,000 over the next 45 days to cover the costs of permit fees, demoing walls to build out an expanded area, and necessary plumbing upgrades such as installing a mop sink, grease traps, and floor drain.

Phase 2: Reconstruction – Goal: $20,000

This will be another separate campaign we launch in the spring of 2018, which will build out the space and get it ready for the last phase. In this phase of the campaign, we’ll raise the additional funds for necessary electrical and ventilation upgrades, replacing the windows, building new wells, installing a fire suppression hood, and finally grinding and coating the cement floors with epoxy.

Phase 3: Move-In – Goal: $20,000

This will be the last campaign we launch in the summer of 2018, which will cover the costs of replacing the 18-burner stove and purchasing the additional remaining equipment necessary for us to begin serving meals from the community for the community!

Risks and Challenges:

  • Money. By far the greatest challenge we face is funding. Though we are an anti-capitalist organization, we nevertheless have to pay our mortgage, utilities, and materials costs for maintaining the building. We will not be able to finish the kitchen a timely manner if we don’t successfully raise the funds for all three phases through crowdfunding or grants.
  • Time. As a volunteer-run organization relying heavily on donated labor to reduce costs, sometimes work moves slower than we would like.
  • Unexpected building issues. This building is 80 years old, and has not been well cared for in the past. There’s no doubt that once we start opening walls or digging in the ground that we are going to run into some icky sticky stuff, and not just in the pipes.

Other ways you can help:

  • SPREAD THE WORD: If you can’t give monetary support right now, we would be hugely grateful if you could share this campaign with your communities.
  • VOLUNTEER! The Omni Commons is 100% volunteer-run. Get in touch if you’d like to volunteer! We’re especially looking for folks who have experience with building and running a commercial kitchen, but also always in need of a pair of helping hands, fundraising and communications/outreach assistance.
  • DONATE! Help complete the kitchen by donating any of the items on our WishList, such as stainless steel prep tables, utensil racks, and ja commercial ice-maker.

Thank you for your support!


Your friends and comrades at Omni Commons

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if you don’t reach your goal?

Even if we don’t reach our goal, every dollar we raise goes directly to the costs of renovating the kitchen and bringing it up to code for use by the community.

What kind of things happen at the Omni?

Omni Commons is a space to host public events; reclaim technology for the people through affordable space and shared resources; develop open science biology projects in a shared community lab; create film and media projects telling stories that would otherwise remain untold; print everything from books to t-shirts for causes and campaigns; organize around social issues and provide food sovereignty and economic opportunities for the people.

The kind of support provided by this 100% volunteer-run project includes the meeting of immediate needs such as food, internet access, shared tools and equipment – to affordable space for learning, collaborating, and organizing around sustainable, community-owned alternatives to existing corporate- and state-controlled infrastructure.

Updates 1



Overflights, mapping fiber-optic networks, “strange activities.” Moscow’s West Coast spies were busy.


DEC. 14, 2017 (

The first thing you need to understand about the building that, until very recently, housed the Russian Consulate in San Francisco — a city where topography is destiny, where wealth and power concentrate, quite literally, at the top — is its sense of elevation. Brick-fronted, sentinel-like, and six stories high, it sits on a hill in Pacific Heights, within one of the city’s toniest zip codes. This is a neighborhood that radiates a type of wealth, power, and prestige that long predates the current wave of nouveau riche tech millionaires, or the wave before that, or the one before that. It is old and solid and comfortable with its privilege; its denizens know they have a right to rule. Indeed, from Pacific Heights, one can simultaneously gaze out on the city, the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge — and, beyond, the vast, frigid Pacific.

The second thing you need to understand about the closure of Russia’s San Francisco consulate is that, after the Trump administration summarily announced on Aug. 31 that it would shutter the building 48 hours later, the news coverage that followed almost uniformly focused on two things: the dumbfounding heat (this city, cool and grey, is in California but not of it) and the black smoke wheezing from the consulate’s chimney, as employees rushed to burn up, one assumes, anything confidential or inculpatory.

People were right to look upward, toward the building’s roof, but their focus was misplaced: It was, in reality, the motley array of antennas and satellites and electronic transmittal devices dotting the rooftop — objects viewed with deep suspicion and consternation by U.S. intelligence community officials for decades — that tells the story of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, not the ash drifting listlessly over the neighboring mansions.

Listen to this story and other feature stories from  FP and other magazines: Download the Audm app for your iPhone.

I rushed to the consulate the day the closure announcement was made and watched the building sit impassively in the heat, while the media crews cooled off in the shade. A suspiciously large number of delivery vans were circling, and there was an unusual concentration of loiterers (in their cars, on computers; in biking gear, across the street) on an otherwise very quiet block. Pedestrians walked by, snapping photos on their iPhones.

San Francisco, it was clear, was now embroiled in the increasingly feverish diplomatic confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced, in an interview on state-run television, that he was decreasing by 755 the total number of personnel working at U.S. diplomatic facilities in his country. Closing the San Francisco consulate (and two smaller diplomatic annexes) was the Trump administration’s retaliation for this move. Putin, for his part, claimed that he was merely responding to the Barack Obama administration’s December 2016 shuttering of two Russian recreational compounds on the East Coast; the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, identified as spies, from the country (this list included four employees of the San Francisco consulate, including the building’s “chef”); and a new round of congressional sanctions. The Obama administration, of course, made these moves in retaliation for the unprecedented Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But why the focus on San Francisco? Why not close one of Russia’s other three consulates, in New York, Seattle, or Houston? And why now?


The answer, I discovered, appears to revolve around an intensive, sustained, and mystifying pattern of espionage emanating from the San Francisco consulate. According to multiple former intelligence officials, while these “strange activities” were not limited to San Francisco or its environs, they originated far more frequently from the San Francisco consulate than any other Russian diplomatic facility in the United States, including the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. As one former intelligence source put it, suspected Russian spies were “doing peculiar things in places they shouldn’t be.” Russian officials in Washington failed to respond to multiple attempts via email and phone for comment.

In the course of reporting this story, I spoke to over half a dozen former high-level U.S. intelligence officials about the closure of the consulate. Some of these individuals, almost all of whom worked on counterintelligence in San Francisco, spoke on the record generally about Russian espionage in Northern California; extensive conversations with other former intelligence officials occurred on background, in order to discuss sensitive matters related to recent Russian activities in the Bay Area and beyond. These sources confirmed that the San Francisco consulate served a unique role in Russian intelligence-gathering operations in the United States, as an important, and perhaps unrivaled, hub for its technical collection efforts here. But, as I discovered, it was what these efforts entailed that is key to understanding why San Francisco — the oldest and most established Russian Consulate in the United States — was singled out for closure.

For many decades, U.S. officials have been keenly aware that, because of the consulate’s proximity to Silicon Valley, educational institutions such as Stanford and Berkeley, and the large number of nearby defense contractors and researchers — including two Energy Department-affiliated nuclear weapons laboratories — Russia has used San Francisco as a focal point for espionage activity. The modalities of Russian espionage in the Bay Area have historically been well known to U.S. counterintelligence personnel, who understand (at least generally) what the Russians will target and how they will try to achieve their objectives.

One former senior counterintelligence executive, for example, recalled the “disproportionate number” of science- and technology-focused Russian intelligence officers based in San Francisco, some of whom were experts in encryption and were tasked with identifying new developments in such technologies in Silicon Valley. A second former intelligence official noted the long-standing interest of Russian intelligence operatives in San Francisco in building relationships with local tech experts and venture capital firms. What has evolved, noted multiple former officials, is the intensity of Russian efforts. According to Kathleen Puckett, who spent two decades working on counterintelligence in the Bay Area, “there was more aggressiveness by the Russians in the 2000s than back in the 1980s.”


Starting roughly 10 years ago — and perhaps going even longer back, according to multiple former U.S. intelligence officials — something changed. Suspected Russian intelligence officers, often fully aware they were being surveilled by the FBI, began showcasing inexplicable and bizarre behaviors in remote, forlorn, or just seemingly random places.

It is highly likely, sources told me, that the consulate’s closure was linked to U.S. intelligence officials definitively proving long-held suspicions about the objectives of these Russian activities — or that officials could simply no longer countenance these extraordinarily aggressive intelligence-collection efforts and seized on the opportunity to disrupt them after Putin’s latest diplomatic salvo.

What seems clear is that when it came to Russian spying, San Francisco was at the very forefront of innovation.

Imagine driving up and over Mount Tamalpais, the iconic 2,500-foot peak located just north of San Francisco, then switch-backing precipitously through a redwood-studded ravine until, over the horizon, you spot a giant, shimmering, curvilinear beachfront. This is Stinson Beach, a 45-minute drive from the city. Now imagine that, standing out at the water’s edge, is a man in a suit — a man known to U.S. intelligence as a Russian intelligence officer. He has a small device in his hand. He stares out at the ocean for a few minutes, turns around, walks to his car, and leaves.

This account, confirmed to me by multiple former U.S. counterintelligence officials, is one example of a spate of such odd behaviors. Suspected Russian intelligence operatives — under diplomatic cover as well as travelers visiting the country — were also found idling in wheat fields and in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, among other places. Russia has a “long and successful record of using legal travelers” for intelligence-gathering purposes, Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russia operations, told me. “This ranges, for example, from someone who gets a visa to do a scholarly presentation to someone who says they want to visit Napa Valley on their vacation,” he said.


Some suspected Russian intelligence officers were found engaging in weird, repetitive behaviors in gas stations in dusky, arid burgs off Interstate 5, California’s main north-south artery. In one remarkably strange case, said one former intelligence official, two suspected Russian spies were surveilled pulling into a gas station. The driver stood next to his car, not purchasing any fuel. The passenger approached a tree, circling it a few times. Then they both got back into the car and drove away. Suspected Russian intelligence operatives would perform the same strange rituals multiple times at the same gas stations.

Multiple theories about these activities emerged. One was that the Russians were trying to confuse and overwhelm their FBI surveillance teams, in order to gauge just how extensive their coverage really was — in other words, to test the capacity of their counterspies. Another theory revolved around a long-standing communications technique among Russian spies, known as “burst transmissions,” wherein intelligence operatives transmit data to one another via short-wave radio communications. But for these, said another former intelligence official, you need a line of sight, and such transmissions are only effective at relatively short distances.

Many of these behaviors, however, didn’t seem to fit a mold. For one, the FBI couldn’t establish that these suspected Russian intelligence operatives — some of whom were spotted with little devices in their hands, others without — were engaging in any communications. But according to multiple sources, one recurrent and worrying feature of these activities was that they often happened to correspond to places where underground nodes connected the country’s fiber-optic cable network. (In a June articlePolitico’s Ali Watkins reported a few instances of these strange behaviors, tracing them back to the summer of 2016, as well as their potential connection to the fiber-optic network.)

Over time, multiple former intelligence officials told me, the FBI concluded that Russia was engaged in a massive, long-running, and continuous data-collection operation: a mission to comprehensively locate all of America’s underground communications nodes, and to map out and catalogue the points in the fiber-optic network where data were being transferred. They were “obviously trying to determine how sophisticated our intelligence network is,” said one former official, and these activities “helped them put the dots together.”

Sometimes, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me, Russian operatives appeared to be actively attempting to penetrate communications infrastructure — especially where undersea cables came ashore on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They were “pretty sure” said a former intelligence official that, on at least one occasion on land, a Russian operative successfully broke into a data closet (a telecommunications and hardware storage center) as part of an attempt to penetrate one of these systems.

But what was “really unnerving,” said the former senior counterintelligence executive, was the Russians’ focus on communication nodes near military bases. According to multiple sources, U.S. officials eventually concluded that Moscow’s ultimate goal was to have the capacity to sever communications, paralyzing the U.S. military’s command and control systems, in case of a confrontation between the two powers. “If they can shut down our grid, and we go blind,” noted a former intelligence official, “they are closer to leveling the playing field,” because the United States is widely considered to possess superior command and control capabilities. When I described this purported effort to map out the fiber-optic network to Hall, the former senior CIA official, he seemed unfazed. “In the context of the Russians trying to conduct hybrid warfare in the United States, using cyber-types of tools,” he said, “none of what you described would surprise me.”

Multiple former intelligence officials also told me that U.S. officials were concerned that Russian intelligence operatives would provide these coordinates to deep-cover “illegals” — that is, Russian spies in the country under non-diplomatic cover (think of the Anna Chapman network) — or travelers, who might then carry out a sabotage campaign. There were also concerns that Russia could share these coordinates with other hostile foreign-intelligence services, such as a potential illegal Iranian network operating within the country.

As these strange activities persisted over the last decade, former intelligence officials told me, the FBI began to collate and compare surveillance reports from across the country, overlaying them with Russian flight paths occurring as part of the overt Treaty on Open Skies collection program.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2002, allows both the United States and Russia (and 32 other signatories) to conduct a limited number of unarmed surveillance and reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory per year. (According to the State Department, as of 2016 the United States had flown a total of 196 such flights over Russia, while Russia had flown 71 flights over the United States.) The methods of collection — video, photographic, infrared, and radar — are highly regulated and circumscribed, and the country whose territory is being flown over must approve the requested flight path. Flights are monitored in person by representatives of the host government. Afterward, upon request, the collected data must be shared with all treaty signatories. Open Skies was conceived, essentially, as an arms-control agreement: an attempt to decrease, through greater transparency, the uncertainties surrounding each great power’s array of military forces, which could lead to an erroneous nuclear exchange.

But U.S. intelligence officials began to notice a disturbing pattern vis-à-vis these “strange activities” and Open Skies: Suspected Russian operatives were appearing in places that had recently been, or were later, part of Russian flyovers. If these operatives were on the ground prior to the flight, U.S. officials suspected that they were likely helping shape coordinates for subsequent Open Skies missions, multiple former intelligence officials told me. If they appeared afterward, U.S. officials believed that the Russians had identified a potential object of interest (such as a fiber-optic node) and wanted in-person confirmation on what previously been identified during a flyover. There is simply “no substitute for someone literally going to locations and recording GPS coordinates,” said the former senior counterintelligence executive. “From 30,000 feet, you’re not necessarily going to have accuracy if you’re pinpointing a portal.”


Eventually, U.S intelligence officials hit on another series of correlations: Not only were suspected spies visiting the same places that Russian surveillance planes were flying over as part of their Open Skies missions, but they were also appearing directly beneath these planes, in real time, while these flights were ongoing. “The idea was that some kind of communication could have been taking place between the plane and guy on the ground,” one former intelligence official told me. “The hard part was to confirm exactly what they were doing.” (Foreign Policycould not verify whether U.S. officials were able to definitively establish if, or how, such communications indeed occurred.)

One theory, relayed to me by multiple sources, was that the Russians might have been using the flights as a communication platform — airplanes can act as a kind of cell tower, the former officials noted, receiving and transmitting data. If Moscow was concerned that U.S. counterintelligence was able to intercept encrypted data from secure communications facilities based in their diplomatic compounds, the Russians might have been seeking to bypass this possibility by secretly routing data through the passing airplanes. “If a U.S. monitor is watching three functions aboard an Open Skies flight,” worried one former intelligence official, “maybe the fourth function is covert — out of sight and out of mind of observers — and while the monitor is looking at these other functions, the transmission and receipt of data is occurring under their nose.”

If true, these actions by Russia would appear to violate the spirit of the Treaty on Open Skies, if not the letter itself. The treaty has strict restrictions on the types of collection that is permitted, and any covert ground-to-air communication or data transfer occurring between an aircraft and a suspected intelligence officer located below would seem to clearly contravene the agreement. This entire data-collection operation for the western United States, said one former senior counterintelligence executive, was being managed out of the San Francisco consulate.

Russia has aggressively exploited its diplomatic presence in San Francisco for decades, and the United States has historically responded in kind. In 1983, for instance, the State Department issued new guidelines forbidding Soviet diplomats and journalists from visiting Silicon Valley. In the Ronald Reagan era, the consulate figured prominently in a number of sordid cases featuring American turncoats — including those of Allen John Davies, a former Air Force sergeant who offered the Soviets information on a secret U.S. reconnaissance program, and Richard Miller, the first FBI agent ever to be convicted of espionage, who was sleeping with — and passing information to — a Soviet agent being run out of San Francisco. In 1986, 13 San Francisco-based Soviet diplomats, accused of spying, were expelled by the Reagan administration; soon after, the Soviets publicly accused the FBI of operating a sophisticated bugging system in San Francisco via a tunnel it had secretly bored under the consulate. (“Obviously” the building was bugged around this time, said Rick Smith, who worked on Russian counterintelligence for the FBI in San Francisco from 1972 to 1992.)

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets’ interest in San Francisco “was primarily about economic, and not really political, intelligence,” said Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB major general who served as the deputy (and later acting) chief of the KGB station at the Soviet Embassy in Washington from 1975 to 1980. “The main priority of Russian intelligence at that point was industrial development, technological development, to get equal to the United States,” said Kalugin.

Quietly but unquestionably, San Francisco had become a locus of Russian spying. “In recent years,” states a 1984 UPI article, “there have been frequent reports that 50 or more spies report to the San Francisco consulate general.” In fact, wrote the San Jose Mercuryin 1985, “FBI officials believe Soviet spying on the West Coast is controlled” from this location. “Agents say the Soviets eavesdrop on the Silicon Valley from the roof of the consulate using sophisticated electronics made in the United States.”


The giveaway, even then, was the roof: covered with satellite dishes, antennae, and makeshift shacks, these devices pointed to a robust Russian signals-intelligence presence. (The shacks, which persisted until recently, one former intelligence official told me, were erected to conceal the shape of the transmission devices from U.S. intelligence agencies, which would occasionally conduct reconnaissance overhead.)

During that time, “there was nothing but antennas and signals” on the top of the building, recalled former FBI agent LaRae Quy, who spent nearly two decades working counterintelligence in San Francisco. “It was embarrassing that we would allow that to happen. But I guess that’s what the Russians did for us as well.” Quy, who retired in 2006, also told me that at least 50 percent of all San Francisco consulate personnel in the 1980s were full- or part-time spies.

This focus on signals and technical intelligence persisted until much more recently, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me. “It was almost like everyone they had there was a technical guy, as opposed to a human-intelligence guy,” one former official recalled. “The way they protected those people — they were rarely out in the community. It was work, home, work, home. When they’d go out and about, to play hockey or to drink, they’d be in a group. It was hard to penetrate.” The same official also noted that San Francisco was integral to the discovery by U.S. intelligence of a new class of Russian “technical-type” intelligence officer, working for the rough Russian equivalent of the National Security Agency, before this organization was eventually folded by Putin back into the FSB. This group, which was not based at the consulate itself, was identified via its members’ travel patterns — they would visit the Bay Area frequently — and the types of individuals, all in high-tech development, with whom they sought contact. According to this former U.S. official, these Russian intelligence officers were particularly interested in discussing cryptology and the Next Generation Internet program.

But it was the consulate’s location — perched high atop that hill in Pacific Heights, with a direct line of sight out to the ocean — that likely determined the concentration of signals activity. Certain types of highly encrypted communications cannot be transmitted over long distances, and multiple sources told me that U.S. officials believed that Russian intelligence potentially took advantage of the consulate’s location to communicate with submarines, trawlers, or listening posts located in international waters off the Northern California coast. (Russian intelligence officers may also have been remotely transmitting data to spy stations offshore, multiple former intelligence officials told me, explaining the odd behaviors on Stinson Beach.) It is also “very possible,” said one former intelligence official, that the Russians were using the San Francisco consulate to monitor the movements, and perhaps communications, of the dozen or so U.S. nuclear-armed submarines that routinely patrol the Pacific from their base in Washington state.

All in all, said this same official, it was “very likely” that the consulate functioned for Russia as a classified communications hub for the entire western United States — and, perhaps, the entire western part of the hemisphere.

The closure of the San Francisco consulate cannot, of course, be decoupled from the political circumstances surrounding it. Because of the unique, and uniquely unsettling, history and attitude of U.S. President Donald Trump toward Russia — the one country treated with forbearance by a president who blithely aggrieves adversaries and allies alike — the administration’s actions in San Francisco were viewed with perplexity and suspicion by a number of the former intelligence officials with whom I spoke.

First, some note, there is the issue of retaliatory balance: In these kinds of diplomatic conflicts, there is an expectation of parity in terms of the damage you inflict on your antagonist. Putin’s move — to order a 755-person staff decrease among U.S. diplomatic mission employees in Russia — appeared far more aggressive than it actually was. The U.S. government employs hundreds of Russians (knowing full well that some may be spies) to help staff its diplomatic facilities in that country, and almost all the affected individuals under these cuts were Russian nationals, not U.S. diplomats or intelligence officials in Russia under diplomatic cover. The sting of this decision was further lessened by the fact that, as one source told me, U.S. intelligence officials have been pushing the State Department for years to decrease local staff in its diplomatic facilities in Russia because of ubiquitous concerns about espionage. Putin’s decision, then, was not without risks for Russian intelligence-gathering operations themselves. “The downside for the Russians is that [by ordering the staffing decrease] you’re the cutting number of potential informants,” noted Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russia operations.

The outright shuttering of the San Francisco consulate by the Trump administration, then, seems to be a more severe countermeasure than the Russian actions that immediately precipitated it. The closure announcement, Hall said, was “great news, and long overdue.” Stephanie Douglas, who served as the FBI special agent in charge of the San Francisco Division from 2009 to 2012, characterized the administration’s decision as “incredibly aggressive and pretty stunning, honestly.” It was “a blow to the Russians to have this consulate close, in particular,” the former senior counterintelligence executive said. Another former intelligence official called it “unprecedented.” Compounding the mystery further has been Russia’s relatively muted response; a sign, this last former official speculated, that Putin may still be holding out hope for some kind of grand bargain with the Trump administration. “If they don’t react to closing of the San Francisco consulate,” wondered the former official, “what’s the payback they’re waiting for?”

The incongruities here are unsettling. On the one hand, Trump’s decision to shut down the San Francisco consulate was far more consequential and assertive than most realized at the time; on the other hand, there is no evidence — nor any good reason to believe, given his past proclivities — that Trump himself understood the gravity of his own move. “Based on my other interactions with West Wing officials, and the depth of their understanding on the issues in general, I would be very surprised personally if President Trump had any … comprehension of that at all,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, who served as the National Security Council’s director for Russia until April 2017.

Edmonds suggested the locus of the closure decision was likely the National Security Council’s Principals Committee — particularly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis — and that the move was thereafter delivered to Trump as a fait accompli. “I’ve heard that, generally, when Tillerson and Mattis come to an agreement and present something to the president, he’s usually pretty on board with that,” Edmonds said.


This National Security Council-centered account was the most benign theory I heard. One former intelligence official offered that the consulate’s closure may be a signal from Trump to Robert Mueller, a way for the president to show the special counsel appointed to investigate election-year collusion with Moscow that his administration is not in thrall to Russian interests, financially or personally. A second former official speculated that the closure will be temporary and that after, say, a future terrorist attack in the United States, Moscow might ostentatiously offer to provide intelligence on the perpetrators, and the Trump administration — grateful for Russia’s cooperation and assistance — might then return the building to its erstwhile tenants.

These former U.S. officials were as united in their opinion about Russia’s long-term objectives as they were divided about Trump’s short-term intentions. Every former intelligence officer I spoke with for this story was confident that Russia will continue aggressive human-intelligence-gathering operations in the Bay Area, likely through individuals under non-official cover — say, via engineers or data scientists. “Silicon Valley loves Russian programmers,” remarked one former intelligence official.

The dynamics and methods they employ will necessarily change, these officials said, but San Francisco and Silicon Valley are simply too target-rich, too valuable, and too soft for them to cease activities here. The spy war will endure; the Russians will, over time, rebuild their networks, adjusting their activities to account for their lack of local diplomatic cover. Ultimately, the circumstances surrounding the closure of the San Francisco consulate are just one piece in a much larger, and far more shadowy, antagonism between the two nuclear superpowers. “The great game is upon us again,” one former intelligence official said to me. “San Francisco has always been a focal point for Russian interests. The work won’t stop.”

Zach Dorfman is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and an investigative journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @zachsdorfman.

Chattanooga: The City That Was Saved by the Internet

Jason Koebler

By Jason Koebler 

Job opportunities are drying up in towns without broadband. Chattanooga, Tennessee turned around its fortunes by building the fastest internet in the United States.

The “Chattanooga Choo Choo” sign over the old terminal station is purely decorative, a throwback. Since the Southern Railroad left town in the early 1970s, the southeastern Tennessee city has been looking for an identity that has nothing to do with a bygone big band song or an abandoned train. It’s finally found one in another huge infrastructure project: The Gig.

The first thing you see at the Chattanooga airport is a giant sign that says “Welcome to Gig City.” There are advertisements and flyers and billboards for the Gig in the city’s public parks. The city’s largest building is dedicated to the Gig. Years before Google Fiber, Chattanooga was the first city in the United States to have a citywide gigabit-per-second fiber internet network. And the city’s government built it itself.

At a time when small cities, towns, and rural areas are seeing an exodus of young people to large cities and a precipitous decline in solidly middle class jobs, the Gig has helped Chattanooga thrive and create a new identity for itself.

It’s an internet boomtown, and Chattanooga has turned itself from what could have been another failing mid-sized city into a startup hub that’s filling up with exiles from Manhattan, San Francisco, and Austin.

Chattanooga and many of the other 82 other cities and towns in the United States that have thus far built their own government-owned, fiber-based internet are held up as examples for the rest of the country to follow. Like the presence of well-paved roads, good internet access doesn’t guarantee that a city will be successful. But the lack of it guarantees that a community will get left behind as the economy increasingly demands that companies compete not just with their neighbors next door, but with the entire world.

(Full disclosure: The City of Chattanooga invited me down to check out the city’s “startup week.” I have long wanted to visit to learn more about the city’s fiber network, so it seemed like a good opportunity. Motherboard paid for my travel and hotel.)

But not every rural community can just lay its own fiber. Cities and towns that build their own internet have found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of telecom lobbyists and lawyers, who have managed to enact laws making it difficult or illegal to build government-owned networks.

But the success of these networks is beginning to open eyes around the country: If we start treating the internet not as a product sold by a company but as a necessary utility, can the economic prospects of rural America be saved?

Image: Jason Koebler

Stacked outside of the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga’s operations center are dozens of thick red spools of fiber optic cables. They’re roughly ten feet in diameter and are ready to be deployed on large white trucks to wire new customers or repair broken connections. EPB hopes one day they might be used to expand the network’s footprint to neighboring counties.

Inside the operations center are two glass-enclosed command centers—one for EPB’s power business and one for its internet business—that are not unlike the ones I’ve seen in NASA office buildings. Over in the internet command center, a couple engineers tap away at their keyboards as charts and graphs with labels like “Network Events Dashboard,” “Aggregate Inbound with Caching,” and “Electric Outages” update in real time. Next door, electrical engineers monitor CNN, the Weather Channel, and the local news. Bad weather, of course, is the most common cause of power outages.

Fiber and power are inextricably linked in Chattanooga. EPB, the city’s government-owned electrical utility, was uniquely positioned to build out the network, and the power grid is much better off for it. In late 2009, EPB began to modernize the city’s electrical grid in hopes of limiting outages. The utility also wanted to install “smart meters” on individual residents’ homes, which would require a communications link as well.

“The first thing our engineers determined was that in order to automate anything, you need a communications infrastructure,” EPB spokesperson Danna Bailey told me. “We didn’t want something that would have been obsolete in five years, so fiber optics were the way to go.”

EPB and the city realized that with fiber running through much of the city, it would be relatively trivial for EPB to become an internet service provider.

Image: Jason Koebler

Downtown Chattanooga already had Comcast internet service, but the outskirts of town and more rural areas in the surrounding counties had little or no access to broadband—most were stuck on ADSL or satellite connections. Comcast had shown little interest in expanding out its cable networks or upgrading speeds within the city, and the speeds offered by fiber would be a revolutionary step forward.

“We didn’t rate with Comcast because we were a small market,” Ron Littlefield, Chattanooga’s mayor at the time, told me. “By virtue of that, we had little say over what service we were receiving.”

When the fiber plan became public, Comcast and AT&T, which also had a small presence in parts of the county, were furious. Representatives for the companies scheduled meetings with Littlefield to try to persuade him to reconsider, and then turned to more drastic measures.

EPB’s fiber optics control center. Image: Jason Koebler

“Comcast and AT&T came separately, and they both said the same thing: ‘First of all, no one needs the service you’re talking about here.’ They also said it’s not fair for government to be in the business of competing with private industry,” Littlefield said.

“I said ‘Here’s the deal—you install the fiber.’ I’m 70 years old. I remember when we had a Commodore 64 at our house and they said, ‘That’s all the computing power you’ll ever need.’ Every time someone says that’s enough, it’s not the case,” he added. “I said, ‘I can foresee a need for this fiber, so if you will install fiber, we will piggyback on that under contract and do what we need to do with our smart meters.’ They said ‘we can’t afford to.’ I said we can’t afford not to.”

“Chattanooga didn’t have a bad image, it just had no image. The Gig has restored our luster.”

The plan moved forward, and, as it often does, telecom defended the status quo with public relations campaigns. Television ads paid for by the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association (Comcast and AT&T are members) took a grim look at the worst-case-scenario.

“EPB is building a network to be used for cable and internet, at the expense of EPB customers,” the narrator of one of the ads says. The ads (and an online petition) warned that EPB’s electricity utility would be left to subsidize the fiber network, increasing costs for customers: “That’s just wrong.” Another ad pointed to a failed government telecom project in Memphis and announced that “EPB is pushing a similar plan, with your money. Let’s not repeat the Memphis Mistake.”

Then, Big Telecom’s lawyers came.

“They sued us four times,” Littlefield said. “We finally won.”

EPB pushed forward, and the Chattanooga city council allowed EPB to take out a $169 million loan to begin building the network; no taxpayer funds were used. As the project was being built out, the city earned a $111 million stimulus grant from the federal government. In 2010, the city turned on the fiber network and officially became the first city in the United States to offer gigabit internet speeds to all of its residents.

“It felt like I was the mayor of the first city to have fire,” Littlefield said.


Today, EPB offers service to 180,000 homes and businesses in southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia. As of July, EPB had 83,000 internet customers, far above its break-even line of 42,000.

EPB has signed up more than 8,000 customers for its $69.99 per month gigabit service. Its most popular offering is still the 100 Mbps option at $57.99 per month. Earlier this year, EPB also started offering a 10 Gbps internet option, which is $299.99 per month and is the fastest internet option available in the country (several other municipal networks around the country also offer this speed, but no higher).

“Without fiber in the 21st century, our towns are going to disappear one obituary at a time because the young people can’t stay”

The profit is used to pay down the initial loan and to prevent rate hikes for EPB’s electric utility—which is the exact opposite of what the telecom industry warned would happen. EPB is now the largest taxpayer in Chattanooga.

Spools of fiber stacked outside of EPB’s operations center. Image: Jason Koebler

An independent study published by University of Tennessee last year noted that EPB’s network could be directly tied to the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and said that the economic benefits for the city have been roughly $1 billion over the course of the last five years.

Manufacturing has come back to the city in a big way, because the promise of both incredibly reliable power and fast internet has lured in big multinational companies like Volkswagen.

Chattanooga’s unemployment rate peaked at over 10 percent during the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn; it now hovers just less than 5 percent. In 2014, the city had the third highest wage growth in the country among mid-sized cities. Surely some of that turnaround can be attributed to general economic improvement in the US, but Chattanooga’s current mayor Andy Berke says he believes the network has helped “insulate” the city from future downturns.

“The true economic value of the fiber infrastructure is much greater than the cost of installing and maintaining the infrastructure,” the University of Tennessee study concluded.

Image: Jason Koebler

In 1969, the Environmental Protection Agency declared that Chattanooga had the “dirtiest air of any city in the United States.” Through the 1970s and 1980s, the downtown population emptied out as manufacturing began to collapse in the United States and pollution drove people to the suburbs.

“The air was so polluted that people drove with their headlights on during the day,” a Brookings report noted. “Walking to work left clothes covered in soot, and it was difficult to see the mountains from the city.” The railroad left town, and the city was in decline. Left in its wake were rotting shells of old buildings.

An urban renewal program in the 90s—including a minor league baseball stadium and Tennessee’s largest aquarium—started to turn downtown around, but there’s still a surplus of old hollowed-out buildings and largely empty surface-level parking lots that take up entire blocks of the city.

Chattanooga’s Dynamo startup incubator’s demo day. Image: Jason Koebler

It’s clear those buildings won’t remain empty for long. Construction crews are renovating the shells of mid-century buildings in the city’s new “Innovation District.” For instance: An abandoned hotel in the heart of the Innovation District will become the “Tomorrow Building,” a “startup hostel” that I swear isn’t an idea cribbed from the TV show Silicon Valley. Save for the exposed brick walls, the inside of the Tomorrow Building doesn’t look like much now—the floors are still concrete and there’s sawdust everywhere. But in a couple months, there’ll be startup types living and working in a space designed to “increase collision” among young people in hopes that they’ll found successful companies.

“It’s forcing very conservative elected officials to have a real heartfelt conversation about what they do with this issue”

Tomorrow Building apartments are available in 3-, 6-, and 12-month leases, and are all-in propositions. They come furnished, with gigabit internet connections, access to “intimate fireside chats with startup champions,” potluck dinners, and pub crawls, and commendably do not have a “no sex” rule. Such buildings are common in San Francisco, Williamsburg, and college campuses; they’re not really the first thing you think of when you think of smaller Southeastern cities. The Tomorrow Building is the crown jewel of the Lamp Post Group, a venture capital startup incubator based in the city that owns six buildings in the innovation district, because many of the startups it’s invested in are beginning to outgrow their office spaces.

In New York, at least, startup culture sort of blends in with everything else. It’s there, but it doesn’t dominate. In downtown Chattanooga, it’s in your face everywhere you look. The plywood, exterior-facing walls of under-construction coworking spaces are painted with pithy quotes about innovation, while a startup accelerator owned by Lamp Post Group called Dynamo advertises its demo day on the marquee of the local theater.

The Dynamo startup accelerator. Image: Jason Koebler

Granted, I was in town during the city’s “Startup Week,” but watching a normcore guitarist and a man dressed in traditional African garb play bongo-and-bass covers of classic rock songs in a public park gazebo with free gigabit wifi felt very much like the city is trying to nail whatever it is San Francisco pretends to be. Chattanooga has taken its internet network, sold it as its image, and has pitched it as the reason why startups and young people should move to town.

“I don’t know how many times we had efforts to try and determine what Chattanooga’s personality or the face we show to the public should actually be,” Littlefield told me about the time after the railroad shut down. “We hired consultants and they came back and told us: Chattanooga didn’t have a bad image, it just had no image. The Gig has restored our luster and given us a new lever to pull that has tied us to the next century, rather than the steam and smoke of the old century.”

I repeatedly spoke to people who had tried the startup thing in San Francisco or Manhattan, gotten burned out by the culture, and decided to move to Chattanooga. Lots of them were 20-something native Chattanoogans who finally saw a reason to come home.

Signs about “innovation” are all over construction projects in the Innovation District. Image: Jason Koebler

“There’s a lot of appeal to being in a good-looking city that’s known for a great outdoors scene that happens to be eight times more affordable than other major tech markets,” Weston Wamp, a VC at Lamp Post Group, told me.

Living/working hostels aside, the startup community in Chattanooga seems hell bent on creating a different type of vibe than the ones you see on the coasts. I repeatedly talked to people who moved to Chattanooga because San Francisco and New York are too stressful, too crazy, too focused on success and not on family. If there were a stated ideal for the folks I spoke to in Chattanooga, it’d probably be Silicon Valley, without the psychos.

Construction workers are trying to finish the inside of the “Tomorrow Building” by December. Image: Jason Koebler

Mike Bradshaw, outgoing director of the CO.LAB startup accelerator, told me the goal in Chattanooga “isn’t to produce unicorns and billionaires,” it’s to make sustainable businesses.

Dynamo’s startups are focused on improving warehouse inventory tracking, convenience store stocking, and airplane maintenance. Bellhops, Chattanooga’s most successful homegrown startup, is an on-demand moving service that uses college students as its employees.

“We’re creating a different option for startup culture, which, let’s face it, is just going to become culture,” Jack Studer, who is taking over for Bradshaw at CO.LAB, told me. “You look at the startup havens and typically you see those in blue states, very liberal, very young. That’s typically what you see. This is a southern city. The people at Bellhops, they all hunt, they all fish, they all watch SEC football. You don’t see that at Facebook. It’s just different.”

Image: Lawson Whitaker

With gigabit fiber internet slowly proliferating around the country because of municipal fiber projects, Google Fiber, startup ISPs, and new investment from incumbents spurred by competition, America is quickly dividing into two segments: Those who have fast internet and those who do not. Jobs—in any meaningful number, at least—will not continue to exist in towns and rural areas that lack fast, accessible internet access.

Earlier this week, Google Fiber announced that it would be significantly scaling backits activities and wouldn’t expand to new cities for the time being. This announcement has led some to suggest that fiber isn’t a necessary technology. More important than overall speed, however, is the reliability, accessibility, and cost of broadband networks. On that front, small towns and rural America has been utterly failed by incumbent providers who have little incentive to upgrade their networks without the pressure of competition from another business or from a municipality itself.

“For smaller towns, building a network becomes a question of economic survival—they’re emptying out because kids grow up and there’s no jobs for them,” Masha Zager, editor in chief of Broadband Communities magazine, a trade publication that covers cities that have build their own networks, told me. “Sometimes, it’s a question of keeping businesses and allowing them to grow, sometimes it’s about enabling teleworking, sometimes it’s about attracting businesses to come to town.”

Bellhops, an on-demand moving app, is Chattanooga’s largest home-grown startup. Image: Jason Koebler

The stats suggest that rural American communities are indeed getting lapped by larger cities where economic opportunities are better. An analysis by the Daily Yonder, a nonprofit publication of the Center for Rural Strategies, found that the economic recovery has almost entirely benefitted America’s most populous cities. The Department of Agriculture notes that between 2010 and 2014, rural counties lost a total of 346,000 people to migration, leading to a population decline of 33,000 annually once birth rates were taken into account. This is the first four-year stretch in American history in which that has ever been the case.

“Some of the most painful stresses running through the labor market have to do with technology-driven skills requirement change and technology-driven employment opportunity change,” Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, told me. “I think that these are pervasive effects sweeping through the entire economy. Most growth in job categories are happening either at the very bottom where there can be a physical service provision or it’s occurring at the higher levels where there’s much more of a need for more complex or creative skills.”

Branch Technologies, headquartered in Chattanooga, has the world’s largest freeform 3D printer. Image: Jason Koebler

What’s happening, then, is that young people are leaving behind rural communitiesas early as possible toward places with better economies, while older folks are getting automated out of jobs that don’t exist anymore and won’t exist ever again. In part because we have utterly failed at providing broadband to rural communities, there’s a built-up dearth of technical skill and job retraining opportunities for older workers.

“I think [technology-related economic change] is arguably one of the most under-discussed topics on the campaign trail,” Muro said. “Broadband access is certainly important, as are the skills training and routine exposure to digital skills broadband can offer.”

Chattanooga’s success at creating new jobs and spurring new investment in the city has created a bit of a conundrum: Other communities in the state want what it’s got. EPB has the capability, the will, and a business plan that would let it expand out to several other towns and counties in Southeastern Tennessee, but it’s running into the same legal roadblocks it did six years ago.

Image: Jason Koebler

“Our neighbors are looking over the fence saying, ‘Why don’t we have that?'” Charles Wood, vice president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, told me. “It’s forcing very conservative elected officials to have a real heartfelt conversation about what they do with this issue. It’s a strange dynamic to have the government offer this in a conservative area, but if you ask constituents, they’re happy about what they get.”

A 1999 law that allows EPB to sell telecommunications and video services to its power customers also prevents the city from expanding its internet service beyond the bounds of its electric utility service. That law was originally about offering cable television in areas AT&T, Comcast, and Charter wouldn’t expand to, but has since become a major roadblock to the expansion of various municipal networks in Tennessee.

“In order to pass that legislation at all, AT&T would not allow it to pass unless there was a restriction that municipalities could only provide it within their electric footprint,” Janice Bowling, a Republican Tennessee state senator (who represents a district on the other side of the state), told me.

These and other flyers were sent by Comcast to residents of Batavia, Illinois in an attempt to dissuade the city from building a fiber network. Image: Comcast

EPB petitioned the Federal Communications Commission, asking the federal government to preempt Tennessee’s law. The FCC ruled that Chattanooga could ignore Tennessee’s law, but Tennessee sued. The FCC lost its case in front of the Sixth Circuit of Appeals this summer. The new strategy, Bowling says, is to repeal the 1999 law altogether, a move she is sure will be met with fierce lobbying.

Tennessee’s law isn’t rare: 23 states have laws restricting local governments from building their own internet services. Nearly all of these laws are carbon copies of one written by telecom lobbyists through the American Legislative Exchange Counsel, and most of them were championed by conservative lawmakers who have bought into the idea that government should not compete with private companies.

The common refrain is that municipal broadband is a bad deal for taxpayers, which is always pinned on several failed municipal broadband networks. Earlier this year, a telecom-backed think tank used this line of attack in a report aimed at helping states “craft economically sound laws that protect taxpayers from undesired consequences of government-run broadband.”

Zager, editor of Broadband Communities, says there’s no reason to take an all-or-nothing view toward municipal networks.

“There have been a couple municipal networks that are not very successful and there’s a variety of different reasons,” she said. “Sometimes it’s predatory tactics by incumbent providers, sometimes it’s a lack of expertise or marketing effectiveness. Some cities don’t realize that even though the bulk of the expense is putting the fiber in, there’s ongoing equipment and maintenance costs to keep it going.”

Southeastern Tennessee broadband access (as of 2014). EPB’s network is the black areas in Hamilton county—bright orange areas have no broadband access at all. Image: Connected Tennessee

A Federal Communications Commission report from this year found that 39 percent of rural Americans (about 23 million people) lack access to internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps. Telecom companies say that it doesn’t make financial sense to upgrade infrastructure or expand into these communities, but throw fits if a community decides to build something better.

Broadband access activists are quick to point out that a municipal network doesn’t make sense for every community, and indeed there are many models that work, including public-private partnerships and incentives for new broadband investment by private companies. Critics say that upcoming wireless technologies like 5G and software-based infrastructure upgrades make fiber an unnecessary cost, but it’s still too early to say whether these technologies will be sufficient as primary connections for businesses, which is where much of fiber’s economic benefits come from.

“What we have right now is not the free market, it’s regulations protecting giant corporations, which is the exact definition of crony capitalism”

“No white horse from Comcast or AT&T or Charter is coming in to help our communities,” Bowling said.

Time and time again, however, telecom has shown a willingness to compete on both price and service if a better municipal network pops up. Many cities with fiber networks are suddenly seeing massive investment from incumbent telecom providers—often, telecom will increase speeds and drop prices below cost. After Wilson, North Carolina built a fiber network, Time Warner Cable dropped rates within city limits and then, to subsidize the loss, it jacked up prices in neighboring communities, where it still had a monopoly. In Chattanooga, Comcast now offers 2 Gbps connections, which is faster internet than it offers anywhere else in the country.

Blue areas on the map have no broadband provider offering 25 Mbps download speeds or higher. Map current as of January 2016. Image: FCC

Broadband competition is rare throughout the United States. Current as of January 2016. Image: FCC

“I was in Washington, DC after we started installing the Gig, at one of those functions where a lot of shrimp and cheese was eaten,” Littlefield said. “Comcast was one of the sponsors, and they came up to me and said ‘We’re going to be doing new things in Chattanooga soon, and Chattanooga is the smallest market where we’re doing it.’ It was never happening without our network—their service was so abysmally poor. They’re much better now. God bless America, isn’t competition a wonderful thing?”

The success of municipal networks around the country—and the fact that the mere threat of them often inspires incumbent service providers to suddenly upgrade their networks—has caused a bit of a populist uprising among people living in states where roadblock laws exist. The economic success of cities and towns with fiber is also causing many conservative politicians, many of whom have helped enact laws that help incumbent telecom, to rethink the idea that “big government” projects are automatically bad.

“I have some very conservative friends in the Senate and House in Tennessee and I was giving them a ribbing—you have Tea Party types fighting to allow a government utility to extend into other areas in defiance of a private company’s wishes,” Littlefield said. “I can’t name names, but I talked to one and he told me cable has 42 lobbyists here, and that was just for AT&T.”

Image: Jason Koebler

Lobbying efforts like that are suddenly getting rebuked all around the country. In Kansas, for instance, a Cox Communications-led effort to enact an anti-municipal broadband law was defeated.

“After it was defeated, frankly, the chairperson who called the hearing got an earful and regretted ever scheduling it,” Tom Sloan, a conservative state representative in Kansas, told me. “Lobbyists for the large broadband providers know that some conservative lawmakers are naturally sympathetic to the argument that it’s anticompetitive. But when the communities demonstrate their needs are not being met, that changes.”

So the lines about municipal networks being tyrannical, anti-capitalist, and “unnecessary and risky government liabilities” being pitched in Washington by free-market conservatives including Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha BlackburnSenators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and dozens of other Republicans ring hollow to Bowling and others who have seen the transformative power of municipal networks up close.

“What we have right now is not the free market, it’s regulations protecting giant corporations, which is the exact definition of crony capitalism,” she said. “Without fiber in the 21st century, our towns are going to disappear one obituary at a time because the young people can’t stay. The people are suffering because AT&T’s business model prevents them from wiring these communities and still meeting their profit margins.”

Image: Stacie Isabella Turk/Ribbonhead

The rallying cry of net neutrality activists in recent years has been that the internet should be treated like a utility. It became a quippy talking point, a way to boil down what was an inherently complicated and multifaceted regulatory battle and explain it to the masses.

But what does it mean for the internet to truly become a “utility?” Despite its idealism, Chattanooga’s internet, like the internet in the rest of the country, is not actually a utility. When we think of utilities, we think of things like water and electricity that ostensibly everyone should have access to and that are priced through a process called ratemaking. Nothing of the sort has happened for internet in Chattanooga or anywhere else in the United States—the result is that even though the government offers internet service in Chattanooga, it is still a luxury good.

There is still a vast digital divide in the city: In its poorer neighborhoods, just 20 percent of people have subscribed to broadband. Ironically, many of Chattanooga’s poorer residents who do have access to broadband have signed up with Comcast, not EPB.

“When you have a fiber network that’s only limited by the electronics on each end. You don’t have to worry about net neutrality—there’s plenty of room for all the traffic.”

This, too, is at least partially the result of telecom lobbying. The 1999 law prevents government-owned broadband companies like EPB from offering internet to customers at rates that are less than the actual cost of providing the service, meaning that a new program that subsidizes internet for families that have students enrolled in free- or reduced-price school lunch programs is required to cost at least $27 per month.

Comcast has no such restriction, and recently began offering a barebones internet connection package for an introductory rate of $19.99 per month. This package offers speeds of just 10 Mbps, which is 10 times slower than EPB’s slowest package and 100 times slower than gig service. Comcast also has a data cap of 1 terabyte in Chattanooga, which it recently raised from 300 gb after many of its customers complained.

Whether ratemaking for broadband really makes sense is another question altogether. Power and water are both consumables that can be charged based on how much you use. Fiber internet is essentially an unlimited resource once it’s installed. EPB’s Bailey says the organization has no trouble with network management, and the main complaints of telecom companies during the net neutrality debate—that certain types of data should be throttled, metered, or charged at different rates—make no sense whatsoever for a fiber network.

“When you have a fiber network that’s only limited by the electronics on each end, you don’t have to cap off the traffic that can run back and forth,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about net neutrality—there’s plenty of room for all the traffic. We have no intentions of having data caps.”

EPB’s headquarters dominates downtown Chattanooga. Image: Jason Koebler

And so Chattanooga’s poorest residents live in a city with a burgeoning tech scene, a bustling economy, and the fastest internet in the country, offered by an economically successful government entity. And yet they’ve found themselves both disconnected and, in many cases (as detailed in the excellent Slate Placemakers podcast), without basic computer skills that would allow them to take advantage of the network even if they were able to get connected.

Kelly McCarthy, who runs a technological literacy program in Chattanooga called “Tech Goes Home,” told Slate that many of the people in her class don’t even know how to send an email.

“We’re talking about so many generational issues and factors of living situations and poverty,” she said. “You can’t possibly expect people to improve their lives, or to be even anywhere near their potential for themselves or their families if they’re sort of stuck, kind of in the Dark Ages, without the ability to do these things.

There are no easy solutions here, but one place to start would be to make it easier for city and local politicians—not state and national ones—to decide whether an internet-as-utility model might work for their community. To do that, laws that have been systematically placed there by telecom companies and their lobbyists will need to be repealed. Their power is ingrained at every level of government. What Chattanooga—and other cities around the country—have done is begin to look at next-generation internet access as an absolute requirement to have a competitive city in the 21st century.

Communities that don’t find a way to get incumbent telecom providers to upgrade their networks or build one themselves will wake up one day and find that the status quo has led to the death of their community.

“I’ve always said, ‘It’s one thing to lose your industry or your identity,'” Littlefield said. “The more damaging thing is to lose your young people. It’s not a platitude, it’s a fact. I was always thinking —how can I make it so they want to stay or come back here? Now, we are not just keeping our young people, we’re attracting other communities’ young people. It’s unfortunate for those communities, but it’s good for us.”

Al Franken EPIC Final Speech Listing ALL of Trump LIES To The American People

Published on Dec 22, 2017

Outgoing Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned from office earlier this month amid sexual misconduct allegations, used his final speech from the Senate floor on Thursday to list President Donald Trump’s many lies. He urged his congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle to “stand up for truth.”

The Democratic senator said Trump did not invent many of the lies he spread ― including false claims about widespread voter fraud, climate change science and the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act, but the president was now leading the charge.

“As I leave the Senate, I have to admit that it feels like we are losing the war for truth,” he said. “Maybe it’s already lost.”

Aunti Frances: She fought for her community as a Black Panther. Will gentrification force her out?

In America’s ‘hottest housing market’, one woman’s fight to keep her home has become a rallying cry against the displacement of communities of color

Frances Moore, an activist known locally as Aunti Frances, in front of her home in Oakland, California.
 Frances Moore, an activist known locally as Aunti Frances, in front of her home in Oakland, California. Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian

One by one, Frances Moore has watched friends and neighbors move into cars, tents and encampments. Many in crisis often turn to the 62-year-old Oakland woman, who provides free meals to the homeless, but she has found it increasingly difficult to hear their stories of displacement.

That’s because she knows she could soon be next.

Moore, known locally as Aunti Frances, is now fighting an eviction from the community where she was born and raised, in the heart of a neighborhood recently named the hottest real estate market in the US. In north Oakland, a region strained by the wealth of Silicon Valley and a major affordable housing shortage, the former Black Panther’s struggle has become a rallying cry in the battle against gentrification.

“I have to think about my program, the community I’ve given so much to, my blood, sweat and tears. It’s about more than just me,” Moore said on a recent afternoon, seated on the stoop outside her second-storey apartment. She sighed and buried her face in her hands: “I’m just panicked.”

The displacement of low-income communities of color has become a predictable cycle of life in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent years amid a booming tech industry and rising income inequality. Real estate investors and tech landlords have launched mass evictions to make way for Facebook employees and have increasingly removed elderly and dying tenants from their longtime homes.

Like many older black tenants in the region, Moore is at the mercy of a young landlord who bought her home and immediately moved to kick her out.

Growing up in Oakland and Berkeley, known internationally for civil rights activism, Moore said she first learned of the Black Panthers at around age 12 and that the group eventually took her in when she aged out of foster care.

As a teenager, Moore sang with a Black Panther group and worked for the civil rights group, which was founded in Oakland and provided health clinics and free meals: “They took me in and fostered me, fostered my growth. I learned and practiced and worked, and I mean worked, like 15 hours a day.”

Downtown Oakland, California, the rapidly gentrifying city that gave birth to the Black Panther Party.
 Downtown Oakland, California, the rapidly gentrifying city that gave birth to the Black Panther Party. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

She moved into her current apartment in 2010, not far from where she grew upand launched the Self-Help Hunger Program to provide meals to locals and homeless people.

The program has persisted in the face of backlash from newer residents who complained about homeless people and garbage and harassment by police.

Most recently, Moore’s biggest challenge is Natalia Morphy, a 31-year-old woman who bought the three-apartment complex where Moore lives and has repeatedly tried to evict the tenant. Though the previous attempts have failed, Morphy, who co-owns the property with her parents, is now arguing in court that she lives in one of the units and thus has a right to remove the remaining tenants.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, Moore’s lawyer, said there was no reason Morphy had to force Moore out: “She’s giving a notice that says, ‘You can’t be my neighbor.’”

Through her attorney, Daniel Cheung, Morphy did not respond to requests for comment.

“Though our client is certainly empathetic to Ms Moore, she is confident that her right to recover possession is proper, legal and ethical,” Cheung said in an email, adding, “Natalia is an honest, hard working young woman who painstakingly saved her earnings to purchase her property, which she intends to use to build her nest. She has lived and worked in Oakland and South Berkeley for many years and is just as much of a valuable member to the Oakland community as Ms Moore.”

Moore said the eviction has taken a toll on her, causing panic attacks and sleepless nights: “I want to turn my brain off.” To her new landlord, Moore added: “I haven’t even shaken your hand. You don’t even know whose lives you are ejecting from this community.”

Morphy’s legal strategy exploits what tenants’ rights groups say is a major loophole in the law, allowing landlords to bypass renters’ protections by claiming they are moving in to one of the units. In historically black neighborhoods, many homes are vulnerable to this tactic, which allows investors to evict long-time residents and flip the properties for profit.

Heidi Borst, a 60-year-old tenant also facing eviction, with close friend and domestic partner Charles Branklyn.
 Heidi Borst, a 60-year-old tenant also facing eviction, with close friend and domestic partner Charles Branklyn. Photograph: Courtesy of Heidi Borst

Simon-Weisberg said she has seen a sharp increase in these kinds of evictions – sometimes from young white landlords in their 20s who purchase properties with their parents’ help. In Oakland, where she is managing attorney for the tenants’ rights program at Centro Legal de La Raza, she said she learns of roughly 20 new cases a month of this nature, almost always involving black and Latino tenants.

One of her cases, she said, involves a 25-year-old landlord who works for a major tech firm and is attempting to evict three generations of a black family who have lived in a three-unit Oakland complex since the early 1970s.

Another case involves a landlord named Blake Haynes, who appears to be a recent college graduate in his 20s.

“I’m just hanging in and trying to stay positive,” said Charles Branklyn, an 81-year-old black resident who Haynes is trying to evict from his home of 13 years. The actor and former railway worker, who moved to California in the 1960s, said he would likely leave the state if he loses in court.

“I don’t sleep at night. I feel like somebody has kicked me in the pants and my money is no good.”

Haynes did not initially respond to a request for comment, but after publication of this article, said in an email that he has offered a financial package to the tenant and seeks a “fair resolution”. But, he added, “if the tenant is unwilling to compromise, I am confident that a court will confirm that my right to recover possession of the unit is compliant with local and state law.”

Heidi Borst, a 60-year-old tenant also facing eviction by Haynes, said she doesn’t know where she would go if she was forced out and has an asthmatic condition that could be triggered by a night on the streets.

“I see it like a death sentence, which is why I fight so hard,” she said. “This could kill me.”

Contact the author:


Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks at a protest in front of the federal courthouse, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, in Seattle, where a hearing was held for Daniel Ramirez Medina, a Seattle-area man who was arrested by immigration agents despite his participation in a federal program to protect those brought to the U.S. illegally as children. A federal magistrate on Friday declined to release Medina and said he must request a hearing from a federal immigration judge. Ramirez's arrest thrust him into a national debate over the immigration priorities of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP

THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS Commission’s 3-2 vote to repeal net neutrality rules has many worried that internet service providers will now build the same sort of tiered internet that some other countries have — where individual providers can collude to throttle traffic to certain websites and services in order to shake money from consumers or the companies themselves — or both.

For instance, in Morocco last year, multiple internet service providers worked together to briefly block voice chat services like WhatsApp and Skype, in what was interpreted by some as an attempt to push consumers to subscribe to their phone subscriptions instead.

But Seattle’s Socialist Alternative Council Member Kshama Sawant — the prime mover of the city’s successful bid to enact a $15 an hour minimum wage — has another idea. She wants her city to simply build its own broadband network to compete with the private providers, guaranteeing a free flow of unthrottled information.

It may sound radical but it’s not unheard of. Today, around 185 communities in the United States offer some form of public broadband service. Because these services are controlled by public entities, they are also accountable to the public — a perk that anybody who has tried to get a broadband company on the phone can appreciate. (In November, residents of Fort Collins, Colorado, rejected an industry fear-mongering attempt and voted to authorize the creation of a citywide broadband network.)

In a Facebook post written Thursday night, Sawant urged the state and city to act.

The FCC is doing the bidding of big business like Comcast, not the voters of either party, because public opinion is clear: 76% favor net neutrality, even including 73% of Republican voters,” she wrote. “Olympia should urgently pass net neutrality legislation in Washington State, and Seattle must invest in building municipal broadband, so no internet corporation has the power to prioritize making money over our democratic rights.” She included this graphic her team made to illustrate the idea:

The concept of Seattle having a municipal broadband network was debated during last year’s city council and mayoral elections. Jenny Durkan, who won the mayoral election, argued that setting up such a network would simply be too expensive. Her opponent Cary Moon was in favor of a municipal system.

But last month, net neutrality was still alive. The FCC’s move gives fresh air to the arguments from municipal broadband proponents that city-run systems are the best way to ensure an affordable and free internet.

Just ask the city of Chattanooga. The Tennessee municipality’s Electric Power Board invested in and started offering a fiber-optic network to city residents in 2010.

“We didn’t rate with Comcast because we were a small market,” Ron Littlefield, Chattanooga’s mayor at that time, told Vice Motherboard, about why the city decided to take the step of offering a city-run broadband network to its residents. “By virtue of that, we had little say over what service we were receiving.”

By 2016, the city was offering 1 gigabit internet service to residents for $70 a month. The cheap city-run internet acted as a sort of subsidy for small businesses, which started flocking to the city and built a vibrant tech and startup culture. “We hired consultants and they came back and told us: Chattanooga didn’t have a bad image, it just had no image. The Gig has restored our luster and given us a new lever to pull that has tied us to the next century, rather than the steam and smoke of the old century,” Littlefield told Motherboard.

The political peril in pursuing public broadband, noted David Segal, head of Demand Progress, which advocates for an open internet, comes with the potential of giving unwarranted credibility to the arguments made by FCC Chair Ajit Pai, that states, cities, and the Federal Trade Commission are best poised to regulated the situation. That’s not at all the case, Segal argued, and public broadband is a good thing in itself, but shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for net neutrality.

It’s no surprise that the telecommunications industry has responded bitterly toward the success of Chattanooga and similar public broadband systems. A number of states — with legislators backed by telecom giants like AT&T — moved to ban cities from establishing their own broadband networks with statewide preemption laws.

If these laws remind you of the preemption laws that prevent cities from raising the minimum wage, well, don’t be surprised: The American Legislative Exchange Council — a lobbying group that is funded and backed by a variety of corporations who want to influence state policy — promotes both laws.

In the aforementioned Colorado, 31 counties have pushed back, voting to exempt themselves from a state law prohibiting municipal broadband services.

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has studied the systems that have popped up all over the country. He pointed out to The Intercept that these systems have far greater incentive to maintain net neutrality and that local control has some benefits people may not immediately consider.

“One of the things that we’ve seen with a hundred examples of municipal broadband is not only do people get the benefit of non-discriminatory access, they typically pay less, they have better access, and if something does go wrong, they get much better customer service,” he told The Intercept.

Top photo: Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant speaks at a protest in front of the federal courthouse on Feb. 17, 2017, in Seattle, where an immigration hearing was held.

Colin Kaepernick Will Not Be Silenced

He’s been vilified by millions and locked out of the NFL—all because he took a knee to protest police brutality. But Colin Kaepernick’s determined stand puts him in rare company in sports history: Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson—athletes who risked everything to make a difference.

In 2013, Colin Kaepernick was on the cover of this magazine because he was one of the best football players in the world. In 2017, Colin Kaepernick is on GQ‘s cover once again—but this time it is because he isn’t playing football. And it’s not because he’s hurt, or because he’s broken any rules, or because he’s not good enough. Approximately 90 men are currently employed as quarterbacks in the NFL, as either starters or reserves, and Colin Kaepernick is better—indisputably, undeniably, flat-out better—than at least 70 of them. He is still, to this day, one of the most gifted quarterbacks on earth. And yet he has been locked out of the game he loves—blackballed—because of one simple gesture: He knelt during the playing of our national anthem. And he did it for a clear reason, one that has been lost in the yearlong storm that followed. He did it to protest systemic oppression and, more specifically, as he said repeatedly at the time, police brutality toward black people.

When we began discussing this GQ cover with Colin earlier this fall, he told us the reason he wanted to participate is that he wants to reclaim the narrative of his protest, which has been hijacked by a president eager to make this moment about himself. But Colin also made it clear to us that he intended to remain silent. As his public identity has begun to shift from football star to embattled activist, he has grown wise to the power of his silence. It has helped his story go around the world. It has even provoked the ire and ill temper of Donald Trump. Why talk now, when your detractors will only twist your words and use them against you? Why speak now, when silence has done so much?

At the same time, Colin is all too aware that silence creates a vacuum, and that if it doesn’t get filled somehow, someone else will fill it for him. In our many conversations with Colin about this project, we discussed the history of athletes and civil rights, and the indelible moments it called to mind, and we decided that we’d use photography—the power of imagery and iconography—to do the talking.

Want Colin Kaepernick’s Citizen of the Year issue? We’ve stashed a few for new subscribers. Click here to get yours.

By the end of the 1960s, Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War—he’d marched in Harlem with the Nation of Islam after he was drafted and refused to serve—resulted in him being locked out of his sport for three years, at the peak of his talent, much as Colin is now. He continued to train throughout that period, waiting for his chance to return to boxing. He was known for jogging in the streets, and kids would chase him—the People’s Champ, boosted in his darkest days by the joy of his truest fans. That’s why we decided to photograph Colin in public, in Harlem, among the men, women, and children he is fighting for. To connect him to a crusade that stretches back decades. And because Colin has spent a year as a man without a team, we worked with him to assemble a new one: ten of his closest confidants—artists, activists, academics, and one legend of the civil rights movement—who shared with GQ what Colin’s protest means to them, and what we all should do next.

Kaepernick's own dashiki from Ghana / pants, $315, by Lynch & Mason

Ava DuVernay

Filmmaker, Selma, 13th, and 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time

I see what he’s done as art. I believe that art is seeing the world that doesn’t exist. A lot of people excel at creativity—making TV, movies, painting, writing books—but you can be an artist in your own life. Civil rights activists are artists. Athletes are artists. People who imagine something that is not there. I think some folks see his protests, his resistance, as not his work. Not intentional. Not strategic. Not as progressive action. As if this was just a moment that he got caught up in. This was work. This is work that he’s doing.

The last time I saw him was the night after Trump called him out at the Alabama rally. It was a really dynamic weekend. I had dinner with him and Nessa [Kaepernick’s partner]. To be able to sit with that brother on this particular day—on the day between two historic cultural moments that swirled around him—was shape-shifting for me. Being able to observe that and witness his stillness and wisdom—I’m just really honored to know him. He’s sitting there and I’m sitting there and I’m like, “Look at this brother—he’s doing better than any of us would’ve done.” A lot better. With a lot more elegance.

Carmen Perez

Activist, executive director of The Gathering for Justice, which addresses mass incarceration and child incarceration

What I always tell people is, I could teach you about the law, I could teach you about the criminal-justice system—but I can’t teach you how to have heart. We don’t need a movement full of experts. We need people who care deeply to stand up and offer what they have, because there’s a role for everyone. You make music? Make some for the movement. You cook? Organizers need to be fed. You teach self-defense or yoga? Help people heal. You’re an athlete? Use your platform to raise awareness. It’s not about everyone trying to become the next Martin Luther King Jr., because he had clergymen and journalists and artists like Harry Belafonte. It’s about how we connect to our neighbor and offer our skill set. As Mr. Belafonte has said: Don’t pay me back—pay it back to the cause.

I want people to understand that even if incarceration doesn’t personally impact you, or police brutality doesn’t personally impact you, you can still be involved. How can we show these mothers who are suffering that we love them and we care about them? I often ask: Can we see our liberation bound to one another’s? I’m a proud Mexican-American and Chicana who deeply believes that black lives matter and that once black people are free, then my people will be free.

Colin Kaepernick walks tall on the streets of Harlem. Jacket by Harlem Haberdashery / Turtleneck and tuxedo pants by Waraire Boswell / Watch by Cartier / Necklaces, his own

J. Cole


Colin and I met years ago. I am—I was—a big 49ers fan. I met him during his breakout season. I actually went to the first game he really played in, against the Jets. I just happened to be at that game. It hit another level for me the second I learned he was taking a knee. And it wasn’t just that—it was when I saw the shit he was saying in the interviews when they pressed him about it. His answers were just so clear and potent. Like, right on point. And he wasn’t backing down. And he wasn’t afraid. He was just being honest. And it didn’t seem like he was looking for attention. It caught me off guard because, you know, nothing personally against him, I just didn’t know when I met him that the person with the biggest balls in sports would be him.

You’re talking about a guy in his athletic prime, who’s lived his whole life dreaming about playing football at a level that millions of kids dream to get to. And in his first big season, he takes his team to within five yards of winning a Super Bowl. But then, at some point in time, he becomes conscious about what’s happening in the world. And suddenly something that he’s been doing blindly for his whole life—standing for the national anthem—now feels uncomfortable. Why? Because now it feels phony! It feels like, Man, how can I stand for this thing when this country is not holding itself true to the principles it says it stands for? I feel like we’re lying. And look what happens to him. Had he not done that, this guy would be making millions of dollars right now. Period, point blank. And more important than the money, he was living his dream. He sacrificed his dream.

Tamika Mallory

National co-chair for Women’s March; activist on issues related to women’s rights, health care, anti-violence, and ethical police conduct

My position is that people should not be watching football right now, while we’re in the middle of this, because we don’t need to add to their ratings. We need to ensure that we’re not on social media talking about the game as if Colin Kaepernick is not still up for deliberation. Now, I have some family members who have said to me that they don’t agree. But if everybody agreed about everything, our society wouldn’t be as diverse. And I think that where an opinion turns into the oppression of another human being, or a group of people, that’s where we must draw the line. Some people want to argue, “But the national anthem may not be a place for this because this is about all of us as Americans, the American dream, and American freedom.” And then I have to give them the history of the third verse that Francis Scott Key wrote, which refers directly to us as slaves, and being unable to escape the wrath of slave owners. When I bring that to them, they begin to understand.

Tank top by Calvin Klein Underwear

Ameer Hasan Loggins

Writer and U.C. Berkeley academic, lecturer, onetime Bay Area hip-hop icon

Colin is just a learned person. If you really sit and talk to him, he is a seeker of knowledge. One time I just happened to mention, “Yo, I teach class at Berkeley,” and he was like, “I’m gonna come through.” I was like, “Yeah, all right.” And he did. He did so in a way that showed me a lot about his character. He didn’t just come through like, “I’m Colin Kaepernick.” He had his little notebook, he had his pencil, he was taking notes, he was participating, he was reading the texts. He was on time to every class, making that trip from San Jose.

His protest has exposed the truth about a lot of people in the NFL, even while he hasn’t said anything. I think people underestimate the tactical brilliance involved in that. I understand why people want him to speak out. I understand that. I think they should take the time to understand why he hasn’t.

I think that Colin’s convictions provide him with comfort. A comfort that some of us are uncomfortable with, because we’re mad for him. We’re upset to see somebody who gives a damn being treated so poorly.

It’s a problem that we’ve decided the conversation leans on “Does Colin want to be an activist, or does he want to be an athlete?” As if the two cannot happen simultaneously. You can care about people and play sports. Athletes do it all the time. The problem is that his particular activism was toward the cause of blackness. That’s what he’s being ostracized for. You see players talk all the time about their nonprofit organizations, their donation to this foundation they work with. Nobody’s talking about them not being able to juggle their football careers and being helpful to the community. It’s only with him that it’s questioned. The irony now is that the NFL is trying to make him voiceless because he made himself a voice for the voiceless. Which is one of the reasons I’ll die on that sword to defend what he has done. Because he did it for the people.

Eric Reid

Safety for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick’s former teammate, and the first NFL player to join him in kneeling during the anthem

My goal this year has been to get the narrative back on track. We started having communications with the NFL, and they said they’re going to help us make progress on these issues. But the next step is to get Colin back in the NFL. Because he’s the one that started this. I think we’re finally getting where me and Colin envision this going. Now it’s time for him to get back in the league.

These issues are real, and people know they’re real. But some will do anything to distract from that, to change the narrative, and it’s gotten Colin blackballed from the NFL.

The Bible talks very explicitly in Proverbs about being the voice of the voiceless and speaking up for the vulnerable. Another verse is: “Faith without works is dead.” I guess selfishly I’m trying to get to heaven.

Track pants and sneakers by Fear of God.

Christopher Petrella

Writer and scholar at Bates College

In my view, the most pernicious element of white backlash against Colin’s protest has been the way in which the narrative has been co-opted and re-framed so that taking a knee is now somehow synonymous with disrespecting the flag, with a lack of patriotism. The American flag is not a neutral ideology—it represents something very, very specific to most folk. When someone comes along and tries to point out the history, for instance, of the national anthem, or the emergence of the American flag and its various iterations over time, and asks very difficult questions of “an adolescent country”—that’s a James Baldwin phrase—it becomes uncomfortable. You may recall Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments last year, when Colin started his protest. Someone who’s known as a fairly liberal, left-leaning, or moderate, or whatever terms you wanna use, Supreme Court justice called his protest “dumb and disrespectful.” Which is fascinating, because many folks have pointed out that politicians on the right, obviously those in the White House, have been very critical of these protests. But often it’s bipartisan.

I think it was Howard Thurman, a modern civil rights activist and educator, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive.” What the world needs is for people to come alive. In a lot of ways, Colin operates through that unspoken philosophy. My hope is that Colin’s protest will help mainstream white America to come alive to the deep injustices of our time and of our nation’s history. That’s the beginning of what the world needs.

Linda Sarsour

Activist, co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York

An activist is anyone who cares about something and has a talent that they’re willing to put toward it. Every single one of us needs to prioritize: What is it that touches your heart the most? Is it the killing of unarmed black people? Is it domestic violence against women? Is it immigration and protecting undocumented people?

I always tell Colin: “You are an American hero. You may not feel like a hero right now, but one day, people will realize the sacrifices that you made for so many others.” There might even be a day when we’ll be walking down Colin Kaepernick Boulevard and people will remember what Colin Kaepernick did, just like we remember Muhammad Ali. And I truly believe that in my heart.

Jacket by Musika Frère / Custom T-shirt by Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss.

Gray sweatpants by Alexander Wang.


Nationally syndicated radio host/TV personality, American Muslim who works in communities for social justice, and Kaepernick’s partner of nearly three years

Colin has always been helping people, he has always been involved, because he has empathy. Empathy was a reason why he was adopted: His parents—two of their children had passed away from heart defects. It’s why he helped so many young children with heart defects get proper care—he’s been doing that for years. I’m very fortunate that I have Colin next to me. It’s everything. We love each other, we care for each other, and we have to remind each other that, hey, we’re doing our part, we’re trying to make a difference.

As long as you’re educated and you have the facts, get into those discussions about race. Have those conversations. I don’t care how intense they get. You need to let Uncle Whoever and Auntie Whoever, who might feel a certain way, who might be racist or prejudiced, know that it’s not right and it’s not okay. Their beliefs are never based on facts. It’s always opinions or lies or misinformation, and that is where you can make a difference—by helping them get educated. Just know that it’s probably going to be a fight at first, and be okay with that. You know, your Thanksgiving might not be that good this year. Your Christmas might not be the best because we just had an argument. But you know what? It’s okay, it’s all right—that’s what families do, anyway. And why would you want a family member out there sounding ignorant? So it’s fine, we’re going to fight over the eggnog, and that’s just what it is. We may not see eye to eye, but I did my part, sharing the truth, because that’s all you can do. Be just in an unjust room.

Harry Belafonte

Artist, activist, legend

In my 90th year of life, to see people like Colin Kaepernick having gotten the message and carrying the cause forward is the greatest reward I could ask for. Colin is a remarkable young man. The fact that he spoke out on police brutality against young black men—I thought it was absolutely admirable. I’m prepared to do anything it takes and whatever steps I can to support him if this insanity continues.

And this is not just confined to black athletes—any person with a high profile has to consider their responsibility to help keep the nation honorable and honest. After all the courageous things that have been done by so many courageous people, it’s a cop-out to not speak up. Trump has betrayed our nation. Taking a shot at him is worthy of all of us. Not being “political” is not a solution. Any young person who takes that position would have to ask Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson and so many of us if we had anything at stake. I know how someone who is young can get the feeling that this is the worst things have been. I see how someone could think that. But it’s going to be okay. Even in the Trump era, America is going to be okay.

Jacket (customized back) and track pants by Fear of God.

Interviews conducted by Ashley Fetters, Christopher Gayomali, Mark Anthony Green, Lauren Larson, Ira Madison III, Kevin Nguyen, Luisa Rollenhagen, Bijan Stephen, and Jay Willis.

This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue

Net Neutrality Is Far From Dead as Senators Line up to Fight FCC Decision

Voters from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support an open internet.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai released a video to defend his stance on net neutrality. (Photo: Daily Caller)

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai released a video to defend his stance on net neutrality. (Photo: Daily Caller)

Cancel the funeral and get ready to fight: Net neutrality is far from dead. Our elected officials in Congress have the power to reverse what is swiftly becoming one of the U.S. government’s most unpopular decisions ever. And if they don’t, they’ll pay for it come election season.

If you’re catching up: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just ignored historic levels of public outcry and voted to rip up the basic rules that protect free speech on the internet. Their decision breaks with more than 20 years of bipartisan policy, and hands cable and phone companies the power to control what we see and do online, opening the floodgates for new fees, slowed down access, and even outright censorship.

But 26 senators have already signed on to a Resolution of Disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), a vehicle to overturn the FCC’s net neutrality repeal with a simple majority vote in both the Senate and House. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s increasingly within reach with Democrats in lock step against the FCC rollback and half a dozen Republicans already publicly criticizing the move.

Outside of Washington, DC, net neutrality is not a partisan issue. Voters from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly agree that they don’t want their cable companies controlling where they get news, how they stream music and videos, or which apps they use to pay for things, get directions, or communicate with friends and family.

But this FCC decision came from the darkest depths of the DC “swamp.” The guy in charge, a former top Verizon lawyer, openly joked about being a “puppet” for the industry. Someone funded what appeared to be a sophisticated operation to create confusion around the FCC docket by stuffing it with millions of  fake comments using stolen identities. And the FCC refused to cooperate with an investigation.

Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T poured money into misleading advertisements, ghost writtenop-eds, and astroturf campaigns, to fool customers into thinking that they would voluntarily abide by the principles of net neutrality, even as they used all of their political power and influence to destroy it. They’ve been busy buying friends in Congress withample campaign contributions, while pounding Capitol Hill with armies of lobbyists.

But after all of that, they’ve completely failed to build any real grassroots support for their attack on net neutrality, from the left or the right. And every member of Congress knows that.

75 percent of Republican voters support the net neutrality protections the FCC just slashed. Despite debunked conspiracy claims spread by lobbyists, tech-savvy libertarians and conservatives have been winning over their compatriots on the substance of the issue. Killing off net neutrality would be devastating for small businesses and startups. Comcast owns MSNBC. AT&T could soon own CNN.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai pointed the finger at companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, who many on both the right and left feel already have too much control over online speech. But the FCC’s vote only makes that situation worse. The agency’s move amounts to a crony-capitalist government handout to a politically influential industry, concentratingpower in the hands of near-monopolies and giving them the ability to squash competition and silence free speech.

No matter how hard they try, telecom lobbyists will just never convince a meaningful number of Republican voters that killing net neutrality , and ending the internet as a free market of ideas, is a good thing. And that’s what gives us a unique chance to get our normally gridlocked Congress to take action and overrule the FCC’s politically toxic order.

Lawmakers in every state have been getting hammered for months with millions of phone calls, emails, protests, constituent meetings, media requests, and pressure from small businesses at volumes that just never happen. Net neutrality is becoming one of the most talked about political issues in recent human history.

The next phase of the fight will be the most important, and potentially the most dangerous. Already one of Big Cable’s best friends in Congress, Marsha Blackburn, who has taken more than $600,000 from the industry, is pushing for legislation that would permanently undermine the FCC’s ability to enforce open internet protections. This bait and switch has been in the works for months. The telecom lobby’s end game is to use the crisis they’ve created to ram through legislation that’s branded as a compromise but amounts to a fatal blow to net neutrality .

But that’s exactly why we need to push for Congress to overrule the FCC with a Congressional Resolution of Disapproval. We don’t need legislation that’s been watered down with kool-aid. The FCC did something that a supermajority of people in this country oppose. Our elected officials have to decide whether to rubber stamp that betrayal or overturn it.

The internet makes the impossible possible. If we harness our anger and direct it strategically, we can get the votes we need to restore the net neutrality protections that should never have been taken away in the first place. Any lawmaker who refuses to listen to their constituents will have to go on the record right before an election as having voted against the free and open web. They would be wise not to underestimate the internet’s power to hold them accountable.

Evan Greer is the campaign director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit known for organizing massive online protests to defend free expression on the Internet. She’s a transgender parent, organizes a monthly queer dance party and travels internationally as a political musician, speaker, and workshop facilitator. Follow her on Twitter: @evan_greer

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