'A Legal Shield for the Palestine Movement in the U.S.': An Interview with Dima Khalidi

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Portside Date: October 25, 2017

Author: Amjad Iraqi Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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'A Legal Shield for the Palestine Movement in the U.S.': An Interview with Dima Khalidi

 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit last week on behalf of a Kansas public school teacher who, as a condition for taking her job, was required under a new state law to declare that she would not engage in boycotts of Israel. The law is just one in a growing list of measures in recent years aiming to counter the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the United States. 

Political boycotts in the U.S. are meant to be stringently protected under the First Amendment. “The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support,” Esther Koontz, the Kansas teacher, said about her lawsuit.

That’s not necessarily the reality these days, however. “It’s clear that when it comes to talking about Palestine, there’s a suspension of the notion that the government has no authority to interfere in that right,” says Dima Khalidi, founder and director of Palestine Legal. 

Established in 2012 in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Palestine Legal has been one of the key players holding the frontline against efforts to suppress BDS activity and speech about Palestine across the U.S., from state legislatures to university campuses. Khalidi and her staff responded to 650 such incidents [4] between 2014 and 2016.

Just last month, Palestine Legal responded to false legal threats sent to activists and professors by a group called “Outlaw BDS New York,” which accused them of violating an anti-BDS law that never actually passed the New York State legislature. Along with its legal work, the organization also tracks anti-BDS laws in all 50 states (21 have already enacted such laws) and at the federal level.

I spoke with Khalidi last month about Palestine Legal’s work and to hear her perspective on the various threats to – and signs of hope for – Palestine activism in the U.S., including BDS. The following was edited for length.

How and why was Palestine Legal created? What compelled the need for its existence?

“The idea started with conversations among lawyers and activists who were thinking about what we could do legally on Palestine in the U.S. This was in the context of largely unsuccessful attempts – including by CCR, where I interned and co-counselled – to seek accountability for Israel’s violations of international law through domestic and international legal mechanisms.

“This was also happening in the context of a rise in Palestine activism after the 2008-2009 Gaza war – a mobilization that we hadn’t seen in decades. And at the same time, there was an escalation in the backlash against that movement: 11 students at the University of California, Irvine were being criminally prosecuted for protesting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and the Olympia Food Co-op was being sued for passing a resolution to boycott Israeli goods.

“What I kept hearing from people was the need for help: that talking about Palestinian rights, and challenging Israel’s actions and narrative, opened people up to a huge amount of risk, attacks, and harassment – much of it legal in nature, or with legal implications.

“So with the support of a handful of people – including the instrumental vision of the legendary human rights lawyer Michael Ratner, who passed away last year – I established Palestine Legal. Our work is meant to provide a legal shield for the Palestine movement, to protect and expand the space to advocate on this issue. As an organization dedicated to movement lawyering, we don’t consider ourselves part of the movement per se, but as supporting the movement’s efforts to challenge the status quo, whatever their tactics.”

That can be a tricky distinction to make – being part of a movement versus supporting a movement.

“It is a tricky balance. Movement lawyering requires us to recognize that it’s not the lawyers that lead or dictate the movement, even if we personally disagree with their tactics or know they’ll land people into trouble. All our staff are deeply political people with their own activist and personal histories, but we try to step back from that role and focus instead on responding to the legal needs of activists on the ground.”

Does Palestine Legal only deal with the right to boycott, or does it also address the substantive content or arguments of the BDS movement itself?

“We always go back to why people are motivated to speak out and engage in BDS, which are central to why we have the right to do it. Boycotts are a means for people who don’t necessarily have access to power to take collective action in order to influence change – as was done with the civil rights boycotts, boycotts of apartheid South Africa, and boycotts for farm workers’ rights. The U.S. Supreme Court itself recognized this as a legitimate activity protected by the First Amendment in 1982.

“In this case, the goal of boycotts is to achieve justice, freedom, and equality for Palestinians, who have been continuously dispossessed of their land, livelihoods, dignity, and agency for over seven decades. Those opposed to Palestinian rights try to claim otherwise; so it’s imperative to the legal argument that we return to the key issues that describe the Palestinian experience.”

This isn’t the first time in U.S. history that the right to boycott, or free speech in general, has been suppressed. Why is there still a “Palestine exception” to these rights today? What lessons do you take from the past when dealing with your cases?

“When we talk about the Palestine exception, it’s not to say that it’s the only exception. You can look at the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War, when people were forced to sign loyalty oaths and were subjected to witch hunts and blacklists. The response to that McCarthyist era was an eventual strengthening of First Amendment jurisprudence, which now provides better legal protections against ‘compelled speech,’ for example. This is also true of the Civil Rights era, when states tried to issue new laws to stop certain kinds of protests, and to use existing laws to indict people for boycotting – hence the Supreme Court ruling that recognized political boycotts as a right.

“Still, it’s clear that when it comes to talking about Palestine, there’s a suspension of the notion that the government has no authority to interfere in that right. We see all kinds of bogus justifications for strangling Palestine advocacy: it’s anti-Semitism, it’s support for terrorism, it’s propaganda, it’s discriminatory. Our position is to step in and say there’s no exception here. Talking about Palestine is exactly what the First Amendment is supposed to protect: it’s a dissenting view from what the vast majority of our politicians and officials espouse, and it is speech that the government most wants to censor, so it must be vigilantly protected.

“Another part of the reason why Palestine feels different is that the attacks pervade all aspects of our lives today. The backlash can be online (look at outfits like Canary Mission, which profile and harass people); from employers (look at Steven Salaita, fired for tweeting critically about Israel’s war on Gaza); from donors; from institutions (look at the students censored or punished at Fordham University, University of California-Berkeley, or at the Missouri History Museum). This is because there are influential domestic groups and individuals that are doing everything in their power to shield Israel from scrutiny on every forum, and to ensure that the U.S. continues to unconditionally support Israel.”

The head of a major Israel advocacy group was quoted in 2016 saying to BDS activists: “While you were doing your campus antics, the grown-ups were in the state legislature passing laws that make your cause improbable.” What do you take from that? Why is more of the anti-BDS backlash today coming in the form of legislation?

“That quote says a lot about the political dynamics in the U.S. On the one hand, you have an intersectional grassroots movement that’s driven by students and youth. On the other hand, you have a well-resourced and well-connected constituency that’s deeply entrenched in state and public institutions. The way that Israel lobby groups are successful in pushing such blatantly unconstitutional laws, and the way university heads face (and often succumb to) pressure from advocacy groups, alumni, donors, and state officials, further illustrates this top-down approach.

“There’s a growing and visible alliance between Zionist groups in the U.S., the right-wing Israeli government, and far right groups in the US. They believe that they can dictate the discourse on Israel-Palestine, and get around the First Amendment problem, by pandering to Islamophobic sentiment; by conflating nonviolent resistance with terrorism; and by undermining the motivation and rights of the entire Palestine movement. Even many in the Democratic Party and self-described “progressives” blindly support these agendas.

“At the same time, we’re seeing groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) offering different paths. There’s an enormous pushback to the more established right-wing Jewish organizations – and that’s exciting. But at the moment, those organizations still have the ability to drive the narrative from above. We have a long way to go; but in the long run, it’ll become untenable to ignore a powerful and growing grassroots movement.”

In Israel we have an anti-boycott civil law and now another law to deny entry to foreigners who partake in BDS. The right wing seems to think that legislation is an effective way to achieve its goals.

“Indeed. Dissent becomes the exception the more authoritarian the regime is, and we see signs of this in both the U.S. and Israel as forms of protest are being punished. It’s also telling that the language in Israeli laws is showing up in anti-BDS legislation in the U.S., such as the phrase ‘Israeli-controlled territory’ to refer to West Bank settlements. It just goes to show that we’re dealing with the same forces – and ultimately, that translates into advocating for those same things domestically. How can you be for equality in the U.S. when you defend Israel’s discriminatory laws and apartheid policies? It doesn’t add up.”

Anti-Semitism is routinely charged against Palestine activism. How do you address those accusations?

“We’ve had success with this legally on some levels. One of the tactics advanced by pro-Israel groups is to codify a redefinition of anti-Semitism which encompasses the ‘three D’s’: delegitimization, demonization, and double standards toward Israel. You can imagine that any and all criticism of Israel can basically fall into those three categories. But when these things go to court or even government agencies, a clear distinction is made between discrimination on the basis of religion or national origin, versus criticism of states and state actions.

“For example, the U.S. Education Department received complaints under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, claiming that universities are tolerating hostile anti-Semitic activities by allowing groups and events that criticize Israel. The Education Department dismissed the complaints and said that this is political speech, and that just because it might be offensive to some, it doesn’t mean that it’s harassment or discrimination.

“Moreover, the vast majority of Palestine advocates are unequivocal about their opposition to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. When we put these matters in the context not only of free expression, but also that the Palestine movement opposes all forms of oppression – that’s when we’re able to make the most impact.”

Do all the attacks feel coordinated or concerted?

“Undoubtedly. We see the same two dozen Israel advocacy groups engaging in the same tactics around the country, accusing activists of being threatening, violent, and anti-Semitic for engaging in Palestine activism.

“But it’s also clear that not all those groups agree on tactics. Some, like David Horowitz and Canary Mission, who publicly name and blacklist Palestinian rights advocates as ‘Jew-haters’ and ‘terrorist-supporters,’ are seen as going beyond the pale even among Zionist groups that actively engage in suppression in other ways. There are also disagreements about pursuing anti-BDS legislation, and about imposing the new definition of anti-Semitism mentioned earlier.

“But ultimately, the more ‘extreme’ tactics serve the same purpose as the others: they want to make it so costly to engage in Palestine advocacy that people just become exhausted, give up, and stay silent. I don’t think these tactics are going to work: more and more people are seeing that they can be successfully challenged, more people are learning about the horrors of Israel’s occupation and apartheid, and more people are refusing to stay silent about those policies and the U.S.’s role in enabling them.”

The ACLU recently came out in defense of the right to boycott Israel. How do you reach out to audiences that aren’t your conventional supporters, including those in the American mainstream?

“Palestine is still a lightning rod and there’s still a reluctance to come out on this issue. That said, the more egregious the measures against Palestine advocacy, and the more they attack our fundamental freedoms, the more we see the likes of ACLU being compelled to speak up – even though they still claim neutrality on the underlying political and human rights issues. We’ve worked in several states with ACLU chapters and other groups that typically wouldn’t be willing to step up publicly on these matters, and we’re now seeing them do so because of what’s at stake.

“Steven Salaita’s case is an example of this: when he was fired for tweeting about the 2014 Gaza war, it sent shock waves across academia. Thousands of professors around the U.S. pledged to boycott the university, and a dozen departments voted no confidence in the chancellor. That’s when you see more people being willing to step into the fray, saying that this is dangerous beyond just the matter of Palestine advocacy — that this threatens all our basic rights to dissent and to debate the most important issues of our time.”

What are your thoughts on the future of your work, and on Palestine advocacy in the U.S. in general? What new strategies are you considering?

“We feel like we’ve been on the defensive and putting out a lot of fires over the last five years, which also seem to be coming faster and faster. There’s no doubt that we’ll continue to help those who are under attack; but we’re also thinking about more proactive ways to tackle some of these issues.

“Our lawsuit with CCR against Fordham University – which refused to grant club status to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) because some considered their views too “polarizing”– is an example. The attack on SJP aims to make Palestine activism so radioactive that universities won’t even allow such student groups to form – so it’s crucial that we prevent this from happening. We have a long way to go in enshrining a new narrative that views Palestine advocates as forces for freedom and justice, and their advocacy as protected political expression – but we’re on our way.

“Regarding legislation, our role is to explain to activists and the public what these laws do and don’t do. This is important because one of the main purposes of the legislation is to make people believe that Palestine advocacy is prohibited or criminalized – and that really isn’t the case with most of these laws. So it’s critical to make sure that activists aren’t scared off from their work, but instead feel empowered to confront its challenges.

“There’s also no question that grassroots mobilization has been successful in impacting the political arena, though we hear less about it. Look at the failure of legislative initiatives in states like Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, and Montana. These victories are because of groups like the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, American Muslims for Palestine, JVP, church groups, and the US Palestinian Community Network. Anti-BDS measures have ultimately strengthened the networks of Palestine advocates across the country, and these coalitions outlast the lifespan of a bill. We believe that the power of these grassroots movements is what will effect change – and that’s what Palestine Legal aims to bolster.”

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Source URL: https://portside.org/2017-10-25/legal-shield-palestine-movement-us-interview-dima-khalidi

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'Billionaire Boom': While World's Richest 1% Took 82% of All New Wealth in 2017, Bottom Half Got Zero, Zilch, Nada

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by Jon Queally, staff writer, January 22, 2018

www.commondreams.org

'Billionaire Boom': While World's Richest 1% Took 82% of All New Wealth in 2017, Bottom Half Got Zero, Zilch, Nada

A new billionaire was created every two days last year and now, according to Oxfam, just 42 individuals own as much wealth as the world's poorest 3.7 billion people

 

Call it the 'Year of the Billionaire.'

In 2017, a new billionaire was created every two days and while 82 percent of all wealth created went to the top 1 percent of the world's richest while zero percent—absolutely nothing—went to the poorest half of the global population.

"The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors." —Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International

That troubling information is included in Oxfam's latest report on global inequality—titled Reward Work, Not Wealth (pdf)—released Monday. In addition to the above, the report details how skyrocketing wealth growth among the already rich coupled with stagnant wages and persistent poverty among the lowest economic rungs of society means that just 42 individuals now hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest people on the planet.

"The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system," Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam's executive director of Oxfam International. "The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors."

Among the report's key findings:

Billionaire wealth has risen by an annual average of 13 percent since 2010 – six times faster than the wages of ordinary workers, which have risen by a yearly average of just 2 percent. The number of billionaires rose at an unprecedented rate of one every two days between March 2016 and March 2017.

It takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime. In the US, it takes slightly over one working day for a CEO to earn what an ordinary worker makes in a year.

It would cost $2.2 billion a year to increase the wages of all 2.5 million Vietnamese garment workers to a living wage. This is about a third of the amount paid out to wealthy shareholders by the top 5 companies in the garment sector in 2016.

Dangerous, poorly paid work for the many is supporting extreme wealth for the few. Women are in the worst work, and almost all the super-rich, nine out of ten, are men.

The report comes just as the world's economic and political elite are set to open the World Economic Forum, held annually in Davos, Switzerland. And why the global elite argue the summit's focus is addressing the world's most pressing problems, Oxfam found that the amount of new wealth which went to the world's top one percent in 2017 was roughly $762 billion—a figure large enough, the group points out, to end extreme global poverty seven times over.

What the report ultimately exposes, Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB chief executive, told the Guardian, is a "system that is failing the millions of hardworking people on poverty wages who make our clothes and grow our food."

"For work to be a genuine route out of poverty we need to ensure that ordinary workers receive a living wage and can insist on decent conditions, and that women are not discriminated against," he added. "If that means less for the already wealthy then that is a price that we—and they—should be willing to pay."

Not just cataloging and lamenting the metrics of inequality, the new report also puts forth a number of policy solutions that should be embraced by people and governments worldwide to reduce levels of inequality and lift billions of people out of extreme poverty. They include:

Limit returns to shareholders and top executives, and ensure all workers receive a minimum ‘living’ wage that would enable them to have a decent quality of life. For example, in Nigeria, the legal minimum wage would need to be tripled to ensure decent living standards.

Eliminate the gender pay gap and protect the rights of women workers. At current rates of change, it will take 217 years to close the gap in pay and employment opportunities between women and men.

Ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of tax through higher taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance, and increase spending on public services such as healthcare and education. Oxfam estimates a global tax of 1.5 percent on billionaires’ wealth could pay for every child to go to school.

Though Oxfam has been calculating global inequality on an annueal basis for more than a decade, the anti-poverty group notes that this year's report used new data from Credit Suisse and a separate kind of model. Specifically, Oxfam noted, the fact that the world's 42 richest billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest bottom half "cannot be compared to figures from previous years - including the 2016/17 statistic that eight men owned the same wealth as half the world - because it is based on an updated and expanded data set published by Credit Suisse in November 2017.  When Oxfam recalculated last year's figures using the latest data we found that 61 people owned the same wealth as half the world in 2016 – and not eight."

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'Drilling Is Killing': West Coast Activists Hold Series of Protests to Counter Trump's Offshore Oil Plan

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by Common Dreams Staff, February 07, 2018

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'Drilling Is Killing': West Coast Activists Hold Series of Protests to Counter Trump's Offshore Oil Plan

Environmentalists in Oregon and California take to the streets to tell the Trump administration "we want to keep our coastline clean."

 

West coasts environmentalists and indigenous people have launched a series of protests to challenge the Trump administration's controversial proposal to dramatically expand offshore oil drilling, which would threaten communities all along the U.S. coastline.

"We have to step up and let these people know we want to keep our coastline clean and pure as it should be," said Elke Littleleaf, a member of the Warm Springs Indian tribe who participated in a protest at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on Tuesday.

Hundreds of critics of the Interior Department's plan—including some who sported black t-shirts that declared "drilling is killing"—gathered outside the state Capitol on Tuesday in response to a public meeting about the proposal, which was hosted at a nearby hotel by the department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The state's U.S. senators, Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, offered their support from Washington, D.C., taking to the Senate floor to demand that Trump Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke rescind the plan.

Oregon's protest came on the heels of more than a thousand people in California, including local politicians, rallying in opposition to the drilling proposal over the weekend.

Environmental and indigenous groups in California have planned another demonstration that will take place in the state's capital, Sacramento, on Thursday.

In an op-ed outlining how "the Trump administration's effort to dramatically expand federal offshore oil production has reignited a battle with California that dates back nearly 50 years," Charles Lester, the former executive director of the state's Coastal Commission, notes that the proposal has not only "sparked tremendous opposition in California," but "nearly all other coastal states also are objecting."

Urging Californians to support renewable energy sources "such as wind and wave energy," as well as a state bill that was introduced in response to the Trump drilling proposal, Lester concludes, "Such actions would be symbolically important now, and could help California make headway towards what many protesters here are calling for: a permanent ban on offshore oil development."

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'Game-Changer': Confirming Fears, Satellite Images Reveal Seas Rising at Increasing Rates

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by Jessica Corbett, staff writer, February 13, 2018

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'Game-Changer': Confirming Fears, Satellite Images Reveal Seas Rising at Increasing Rates

"This acceleration, driven mainly by accelerated melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise by 2100." 

As the Trump White House continues to advocate for the increased use of fossil fuels for energy—while every single other nation on Earth has committed to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming—scientists have found that global sea level rise is accelerating each year.

"We are already seeing signs of ice sheet instability in Greenland and Antarctica, so if they experience rapid changes, then we would likely see more than 65 centimeters of sea level rise by 2100."

—Steve Nerem, lead author

Rather than using the typical tide-gauge data, a team of scientists from across the U.S. turned to satellite data from the past 25 years to study the annual rate of global sea level rise.

They found that oceans are encroaching on coastlines worldwide at a greater pace with every passing year, as detailed in a report (pdf) published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Due to greenhouse gas emissions, largely generated by modern agricultural and dirty energy practices, the planet's warming atmosphere and oceans are causing ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to melt quickly, which the researchers say is producing "climate-change driven accelerated sea level rise."

"It's a big deal," said the study's lead author, Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado Boulder, because these findings indicate that the data-based projections from past studies that relied on a constant rate of sea level rise are too conservative.

"This acceleration, driven mainly by accelerated melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise by 2100," Nerem explained, "as compared to projections that assume a constant rate, to more than 60 centimeters instead of about 30," or about two feet instead of about one.

In fact, "65 centimeters is probably on the low end for 2100, since it assumes the rate and acceleration we have seen over the last 25 years continues for the next 82 years," Nerem added. "We are already seeing signs of ice sheet instability in Greenland and Antarctica, so if they experience rapid changes, then we would likely see more than 65 centimeters of sea level rise by 2100."

The study provides a "data-driven assessment of sea level change" that backs up climate models that were used in the most recent International Panel on Climate Change report (pdf), which showed oceans rising 52 to 98 centimenters by the end of this century.

"The acceleration predicted by the models has now been detected directly from the observations," noted study co-author Gary Mitchum of Florida's College of Marine Science. "I think this is a game-changer as far as the climate change discussion goes."

The findings elicited calls for the United States to get onboard with the rest of the world and recommit to the Paris Climate Agreement, and for other nations to take more drastic and urgent steps to reduce emissions.

Others responded with jabs directed at those who actively deny the problem and refuse to address global warming:

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'Hands Off Medicare': Sanders, Other Lawmakers Call Out Trump's Promises

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by Nadia Prupis, staff writer

'Hands Off Medicare': Sanders, Other Lawmakers Call Out Trump's Promises

'You told the seniors of this country you were on their side'

 

U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), along with seniors and activists on Wednesday delivered more than one million petition signatures demanding that President-elect Donald Trump does not gut Medicare.

"You told the seniors of this country you were on their side, you told working people you were on their side," Sanders said in a press conference marking the petition delivery. "You said you would not cut Social Security, you would not cut Medicare...millions of us are going to demand that you keep your promise."

On the campaign trail, Trump explicitly said he would not cut the program that provides government-subsidized health insurance to Americans 65 and older. But many fear that with Trump's rise to power, and the reelection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to House Majority Leader, Republican control over the government may put Medicare on the chopping block.

As Common Dreams recently reported, Trump's transition website states that the administration will "modernize" Medicare—a code word for privatization, something Ryan has outspokenly supported, as Huffington Post's Jonathan Cohn and Jeffrey Young explain.

Meanwhile, Trump has also nominated Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for Health and Human Services Secretary, further indicating that the program is at risk. Price is not only a Medicare opponent, but also a close ally of Ryan's, as Social Security Works pointed out in a statement Wednesday.

Sanders was joined by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and senior members of organizations like MoveOn.org and National Nurses United (NNU).

"The November election results did not give anyone a mandate to dismantle one of the most popular public programs in U.S. history, Medicare," said NNU co-president Jean Ross in a statement Tuesday. " As nurses we are absolutely opposed to Rep. Paul Ryan's schemes to destroy it by converting it into a program that further enriches the insurance industry and denies care to seniors because they can't afford it."

"Medicare works and that's why we think it should be expanded so that everyone in our nation has access to quality care regardless of their ability to pay," Ross said. "Nurses will make our voices heard across the country in the face of the threat of privatization and profiteering off sickness which is at the heart of the Ryan proposal."

The threat to Medicare comes amid Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) once Trump enters office.

As NNU executive director RoseAnn DeMoro wrote in an op-ed for Common Dreams on Tuesday, a better idea would be Medicare for all—a key component of Sanders' presidential platform.

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