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The role of truth telling in the quest toward social justice in the United States

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:15pm

Acknowledgment of the truth is essential for wholeness and healing

After reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, I think about the state of our nation, particularly the events and decisions that led to its status today. For example, I contemplate on the desire of the Founding Fathers to leave a tyrannical country like Great Britain to create a nation where equality, justice, and freedom would prevail. More specifically, the freedom to practice one’s religion while living out one’s faith; that all persons would be treated justly; and that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. However, these tenets have not upheld in its intent. The institution of slavery began a legacy of racial and economic exploitation. Jim Crow laws were implemented to reaffirm the fear and hostility that White people had for Black people. Furthermore, those actions streamed their way into the churches, where racism was justified biblically and theologically. Even though slavery and Jim Crow laws are nonexistent, injustice is prevalent. Therefore, in order for our country to move toward forgiveness, it is from Tutu’s book that I found an important aspect that is required in the quest toward social justice, particularly in the United States:  the role of truth telling,

It is important to note that Tutu agrees with the significance of truth telling in order for the process of forgiveness to begin. He contends that:

Those who were negotiating our future were aware that, unless the past was acknowledged and dealt with adequately, it could put paid to that future as a baneful blight on it. To accept national amnesia would be bad for another telling reason.  It would in effect be to victimize the victims of apartheid a second time around.

In other words, sincere knowledge of the truth for a nation is essential toward wholeness and healing. It is also imperative for this step to take place so that a brighter future can loom, especially for the next generations. Yet, such an acknowledgment comes at a huge cost. The question is whether the United States is ready to pay the price for such admission.  Is it ready to admit its guilt for citing and distorting religion and the Bible to support the status quo? Will the historians of our beloved country willingly re-write our textbooks to state that our Founding Fathers, according to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “were so enmeshed in the ethos of slavery and white [male] supremacy that not one ever emerged with a clear, unambiguous stand on Negro rights?” Moreover, will the churches of the dominant culture give up their false sense of superiority by ridding themselves of the disease that causes judgment based on one’s skin color, acquirement of material goods at the expense of the greater good, and discrimination based on one’s zip code? Hence, the failure for our nation to concede its mistakes in its past and begin the progression of healing will cause it to continue the habits of oppression, inequality, and disenfranchisement.

Tutu continues to argue that “to dehumanize another inexorably means that one is dehumanized as well”. His statement affirms the intersection of mutuality and community that, on the one hand, when one hurts, we all hurt.  When one suffers, we all suffer. On the other hand, when one rejoices, we all rejoice.  Unfortunately, since we live in a dominant, patriarchal, blaming society, we are comfortable not correcting the problem. Reginald Davis, author of The Black Church:  Relevant or Irrelevant in the 21st Century, cites Andrew Hacker, writer of the book Two Nations Black and White, who makes the case that White conservatives claim reverse discrimination:

This helps to explain why white conservatives so vehemently oppose programs like affirmative action.  They simply do not want to admit to themselves that the value imputed to being white has injured people who are black. Nor is this reaction surprising.  Most people do not like feeling guilty. It can be an unpleasant, even painful, sensation.  Hence the tendency to turn, often angrily, on those who stir us in this way.  Rather than do something substantial to help people who have been treated unfairly, we find ourselves saying that they brought their afflictions on themselves.

In other words, I restate my earlier inquiry as to whether the United States is ready to pay the price for the role it has played in incorporating racism in its daily practices.  Admitting such guilt would mean the redistribution of resources, the relinquishment of its reputation as a world superpower, the modification of societal behaviors, and the revision of biased and discriminatory interpretations of historical and biblical texts. Again, in order for forgiveness to become a diet we adopt, truth telling is necessary.

Without it, ubuntu cannot live, which Tutu describes as the following:

A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured, or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

He continues to elaborate:

In the spirit of ubuntu, the central concern is the healing of breaches, redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offense..

It is from this meaning of communal and sacrificial love for all of humankind that Tutu proposes the following recommendation to the minority in power:

And then I said that Afrikaners imagined that they had only two options in South Africa’s political, social, and community life—either to be top dog, domineering, or to be underdog, subservient, the doormat of others. I said there was an exciting third option, that of embracing the new dispensation enthusiastically and using their enormous resources in money, skills, and experience to help make the new ordering of society succeed for everyone’s sake.

As South Africa had a choice to steer its horrific past into a positive future, the United States has that same choice to make today. It can become honest and make a public apology to all who were (and are still) subjugated under its rule.  It can also prepare to offer meaningful remedies from such pain (i.e.: reparations). Finally, the United States can slowly change its mindset and actions in how it addresses other people, other nations, other cultures and religions by intently becoming open-minded and open-hearted to endorse inclusion, not assimilation (supporting the qualities of all instead of dismissing some while encouraging other qualities for the benefit of the American Dream).

It is from these arguments that truth telling is required for the United States to move toward a just, liberating, and forgiving nation. It is true that, historically and presently, racism plagues our land. So if we do not address racism, how will we expect to confront other issues?  Regardless of the reality that women make up the majority of our population, pay inequity still exists, unfair body and beauty images dominate the media, tensions of becoming ordained continue in many of our denominations, and more. In addition, the never-ending struggle persists for our brothers and sisters who do not have access to clean air and water, safe neighborhoods, high-quality schools and affordable health care to become recognized as human rights problems in our society. Based on these conditions, we have much more work and dialogue to do to heal the world around us.

Reverend Lerone J. Wilder is a minister-educator-scholar from Greenville, SC and a doctoral learner at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, OH. 

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Needless barriers to housing

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:14pm

Policy changes are necessary to address the situation of those homeless

January 28 was this year’s annual Point in Time homeless census to track the number of people living unsheltered at the end of the coldest month of the year. This year’s data have not yet been released, but numbers in Thurston County have been dropping over the last several years in a trend attributed to coordinated efforts by social service providers.

The downward trend is positive. But with 476 people sleeping in the January cold in 2015, our community had more people without shelter last year than in 2006, when the county established a ten-year goal to halve homelessness by 2015.

Social services providers as well as people experiencing homelessness are working hard to make the most of limited public funds and alleviate the crisis. While some people experiencing homelessness need intensive mental health and substance counseling to enjoy stable, permanent housing, others are already waiting in line ready to move in. But people that have fallen on hard times face a litany of structural barriers keeping them from permanent housing, and advocates say policy changes are needed to address the situation.

Jeffrey’s story

Jeffrey Williams is a client seeking permanent housing through the rapid rehousing organization SideWalk. A veteran, he encrypted submarine codes at a naval base in Australia during the Cold War. Right now he is staying with a fellow veteran while he waits for a placement, but for the past ten months, he was living out of his car up and down the I-5 corridor. Jeffrey has suffered from untreated PTSD and bipolar disorder, as well has substance addiction, which together have led to his current situation.

He kicked the hard drugs over a year ago, and he has a reliable service benefit coming in every month to support himself, but basic housing stability continues to be out of reach.

Jeffrey’s efforts to secure stable housing have been complicated by a felony conviction in 2003. In order to apply for housing, tenants need to pay $30 or more for a background check. With the low vacancy rates in Thurston County as well as up and down the I-5 corridor, people with a criminal record are routinely denied housing. This problem is two-fold. In addition to leaving him homeless, he has had to put up cash for screening after screening only to be turned away at the door.

Another problem has been Jeffrey’s limited income. He earns a veteran service benefit of $651 per month, but many landlords require a tenant’s income to be twice the rent or more, leaving Jeffrey and others like him out of the cold.

Across the state, many people like Jeffrey are denied housing because of this rigorous screening process, which often roots out applicants on the basis of income requirements, credit ratings, employment history, or a criminal record.

Source of income discrimination

Some landlords refuse to rent to someone because they’re receiving housing subsidies or other public benefits. Source of income discrimination, as advocates call it, is a substantial problem in Thurston County.

Meg Martin, who runs the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, sees this frequently in her work. She attributes the prevalence of the discrimination right now to the low vacancy rates in Thurston County, which have resulted in competition over a small number of apartments.

Chris Lowell, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Thurston County (HATC) which oversees the Section 8 voucher program, has also seen this practice in her work.

“Don’t get me wrong—we in this community have a great deal of wonderful landlords that we work with,” Lowell said, referring to the 1200 landlords HATC works with to house their approximately 2200 clients. “It is not an everyday occurrence, but it does happen.”

The full extent of the problem is difficult to measure in light of the compounding variables in the screening process, but cases of outright animosity toward Section 8 and the people who depend on it are clear.

HATC has gotten angry calls from landlords merely for proposing to build a housing facility near their property, because the landlords don’t want clients living in the vicinity.

Lowell has seen landlords not only refuse to rent to new applicants receiving the subsidy, but also force out current residents who became eligible for the voucher during their tenancy. This destabilization has far-reaching implications for households with children, who often need to change schools when their families relocate.

“We’re trying to avoid them moving two or three times a year as they’ve done in the past being homeless,” Lowell said. “So to have a source of income problem on top of the screening criteria is very difficult.”

This type of discrimination is one of the reasons the Section 8 waiting list is so long. HATC brings in approximately $15.4 million annually from HUD to cover subsidies for beneficiary households, but the hard part is finding landlords willing to rent to their clients. The rigorous screening criteria coupled with the high cost of rent and low vacancy rate in Thurston County all factor in, but the fact that many landlords simply refuse to rent to beneficiaries exacerbates the problem.

A policy fix

The City of Tumwater already has an Unfair Housing Practices ordinance on the books banning source of income discrimination, but other cities in Thurston County have yet to follow suit.

State legislation introduced last year would prohibit this practice across the state, but rental associations have pushed back. In a public hearing, lobbyist Chester Baldwin testified on behalf of the Washington Rental Owners Association that many landlords choose not to take Section 8 because of the hassles associated with the home health and safety inspections that are required as part of the housing subsidy.

Michele Thomas, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, sees this rhetoric as a cover for deep-seated stereotypes about households that benefit from public assistance. It can also be a proxy for other kinds of discrimination, allowing landlords to sidestep fair housing laws. People with Section 8 are disproportionately people of color, seniors, or single parents. Additionally, eighty-three percent of Section 8 clients have a disability, rendering them more likely to require accommodations to make their home accessible.

Thomas does not see that as an acceptable reason for turning someone away. “If you’re in the business of something as precious as putting a roof over someone’s head, you should be asked to make accommodations,” she said.

Last year, source of income discrimination legislation failed to make it out of committee. This year, advocates are trying to sweeten the deal. Two provisos in the Governor’s budget would help soften resistance from landlords and support local efforts to end the practice. The Rapid Housing Improvement Program would invest $1.5 million to support landlords in making health and safety upgrades required by HUD inspections if the landlord commits to renting to tenants on Section 8. It would also reserve $125,000 to mitigate landlords in the event that a voucher-holder caused damage beyond their deposit. Landlords would only be eligible for the second fund in jurisdictions prohibiting source of income discrimination, a factor that could encourage more communities to address the issue at the municipal level or to move forward with the statewide ban.

These proposals would not solve the broader issues of housing affordability and barriers to rehousing, but advocates say they would address an important part of the situation. One way or another, they are determined to move the conversation forward.

“If we’re going to rely on the private market to provide the vast majority of [housing],” Thomas said, “then we need to make sure that the private market is accessible and affordable to the whole range of people who need it.”

Michaela Williams is a former legislative staffer. She lives in Olympia.

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Movie review: The Big Short

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:13pm

The devastation of the Great Recession cost seven million working people their homes, almost nine million their jobs, and ushered in a new era in which poverty wages and job insecurity are the new normal.

Against that background, it is a strange choice to base a story about the housing crash on a sympathetic cinematic portrait of hedge fund whiz kid managers. Yet through its narrative of greedy mortgage bankers, Wall Street speculators, and bond agencies, The Big Short brings an understanding of the collapse to a mass audience, while exposing the underlying corruption of the financial system.

We follow Michael Burry, Mark Baum, and Ben Rickert (Christian Bale, Steve Carroll, and Brad Pitt) as they investigate the subprime loan bubble and the securitization of those loans which will eventually take the economy off a cliff. And as that happens, we see the role played by the big financial firms and commercial banks in this debacle.

In an interview about the film, Director Adam McKay, summed this up by saying, “…these banks put so much into portraying themselves as rock solid…project(ing) stability and cautious foresight, just to find out that they were selling products that were filled with garbage and ended up selling them to each other, and bringing each other all down, and then going to the taxpayers after preaching free markets and asking for a handout, and then taking the handout, and going back and acting like they are still kings of the world — it’s ridiculous.”

The movie, based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, of Liar’s Poker fame, presents a story of people who made enormous sums of money by “shorting” (that is, gambling on a drop in value) of the subprime mortgage market in 2006-2008. A line from Brad Pitt may be the most honest assessment of these sharks, when he tells them, “You just bet against the American economy, and if you win, hardworking people will suffer, so try not to celebrate.”

Mortgage speculation runs rampant

There are really two stories here. The first is the amazing orgy of speculation on real estate that replaced the tech and “dot com” sectors as the favorite place to make obscene amounts of money. This meant selling mortgages to buyers which the banks knew would be at considerable risk of defaulting on them, many of them working class and people of color. As the film explains, one widespread and cynical method by which this was done was through the infamous “adjustable rate mortgage” (ARM) which could double or triple payments after an initial period. Then as people began to fall behind on their payments, the same banks that had given them ridiculously easy terms at the outset now swooped in and foreclosed on their homes.

The second story is in how by securitizing these mortgages, they made a bad problem much, much worse. Part of the drive to push as many mortgages as possible was so that they could be “bundled” into a “Mortgage-Backed Security” (MBS) and then sold on Wall Street as a bond. Once the banks started selling ARMs by the thousands to people they knew couldn’t afford them, these bonds became a mix of a thin layer of good mortgages covering over these subprime mortgages. The result was the bonds became essentially worthless, as there would be no payoff. Although ratings agencies were supposed to assess these securities for the garbage they were, they essentially colluded with Wall St. to hide the actual state of affairs.

The big banks ignore the problem

The tension of the movie is sustained by the realization by hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) and others that these securities are junk, and that the second the housing market starts to slow down, the inability to pay investors will cause a complete collapse in the financial markets that handle them. Burry became obsessed with analyzing the minutiae of mortgage agreements. His analysis tips him off to the actual phony nature of the securities.

While trying to sound the alarm, the protagonists are repeatedly astonished and disgusted with the incompetence and venality of day traders, investment managers and ratings analysts at various Wall Street institutions. As the story unfolds, the incompetence, corruption, and complacency is shown at every level all the way up to Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Baum in particular grows disgustedagainst ordinary people.

Yet once Burry, Eisman, Baum and the other investment managers realize the catastrophe facing the subprime mortgage market, their actual role is finding a way to earn huge amounts of money off the collapse. The major device they used, developed initially by Burry, is the credit default swap. In a credit default swap, the buyer of the swap pays the seller any payments due up to the bond’s maturity date. In return, the seller agrees that if the bond defaults, the seller will pay the buyer its full value plus interest. Burry and friends use this method to buy up securities they know will default, and wait for the inevitable payoff.

Although we are clearly supposed to be sympathetic to these fund managers, they are in fact making a fortune, and for them the inevitable human suffering is essentially an afterthought. The film pays little attention to this, with just one wrenching sequence of families living out of their cars. Although supposedly anguished by the collapse they know is coming, the film shows the parties pocketing a handsome payoff.

The movie is at its best when portraying the complex financial instruments and their effect on the markets. It uses celebrities as “experts” who explain the situation while dropping the formal terminology in favor of layperson’s language. Selena Gomez, sitting in a casino with an economics professor, is particularly effective in explaining “synthetic” swaps. As credit default swaps spread, even more arcane financial instruments, essentially bets place on bets placed on bets, become the norm.

The movie is entertaining and yet appalling given its subject matter, and it’s likely to draw a mass audience, especially those who want to understand how this series of events happened. There is a level of critique, however, that the film really does not achieve. Sure, plenty of people were greedy, blind, benefitting from the financial casino Wall St. had become. But there is something else, and that is a core element of capitalism itself: the constant drive for more profit at any cost. If that is achieved by ignoring risk and turning people’s hard-earned mortgages into commodities and then foreclosures, so be it.

In one of the final scenes, the narrator spins a fantasy montage of banks being broken up, Wall Street execs going to jail, and regulation being put in place to prevent further crashes, only to say at the end, “just kidding.” That’s not just a case of politicians being bought by bankers. The profit imperative of capitalism itself drive both Wall St. and the government to keep the financial casino open for business.

As the film hints, nothing has really changed today, as unsustainable debt levels, mortgage backed securities and too big to fail banks are still in place, showing the complete inability of capitalism to regulate itself.

Originally published  January 15, 2016 in the Socialist Alternative.

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Olympia alternative education options abound

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:12pm

Olympia is an alternative hub—home to the Procession of the Species, The Evergreen State College, and an amazing alternative music scene—so it makes sense the community would house over 20 alternative public and private schools. These schools share many values such as multi-age classes, hands-on learning, celebrating each child’s unique qualities, outdoor and nature experiences, collaboration, field trips, and differentiated curriculum.

Kids are encouraged to provide input regarding their education and are helped to understand how they best learn. An alternative education fosters creativity and inclusiveness. The schools also encourage parent participation, who often volunteer in ways that support their values.

Though all the schools share many of the same principles, they each are unique in how that plays out.  Here are a few examples:

Lincoln Options, a public elementary school, offers project-based learning with themes. For example, a class that is studying ancient civilizations does not only read about the topic, it may also learn math skills necessary to calculate the immensity of the pyramids. Students may conduct scientific experiments that test different materials for papermaking, learn to read world maps, and participate in ancient crafts. The class might publish or demonstrate their learning in a report, a model or a play.  Each year, all-school themes are selected to further integrate curriculum and develop community.

Olympia Community School (OCS), which hosts the fair, is an independent progressive elementary school.  Students at OCS are each provided the opportunity to learn at their own levels. The school’s low teacher to student ratio of 1:14 fosters deeper connections and allows teachers to meet the learning needs of each student. Teachers assist students in identifying individualized learning goals and these goals are routinely revisited. They also integrate instructional strategies and techniques from multiple educational philosophies, rather than adhering strictly to one specified learning approach.

The ALKI Program at Reeves Middle School is a public alternative program. Middle school is a tough time in most kids’ lives and ALKI focuses on community and belonging, providing a learning community based on collaboration and inclusiveness. At the beginning of the school year, students participate in a two-night trip during which they build friendships and community that will support them through the year as they work on projects as groups such as presentations and frequent field trips.

The Olympia Waldorf School is an alternative kindergarten through eighth-grade private school. Throughout its grades, students encounter a stimulating depth of experience through the arts. This includes movement, foreign language, handwork (knitting, crochet, and sewing), painting, beeswax or clay modeling, music, drawing, games and drama. The arts are integrated into the entire academic curriculum, including math and science.

These schools, and many others listed, will be at the Olympia Area Alternative Education and Pre-school Fair to share their stories with the local alternative family community. The fair is free with kid activities at each table. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about all of the alternative school options in one place and to find the right school for your family.

Participating schools

Alki Alternative Program
Avanti HS
Bird Song Children’s Garden
Dancing Rainbows Preschool
Eastside Cooperative Preschool
Hands On Children’s Museum Preschool
Heartlight Preschool
Lacey Coop Preschool
Lincoln Options Elementary
Marshall CSI Alternative Program
Nature Nurtures School
NOVA School
Olympia Community School
Olympia Waldorf School
Phoenix Rising School
Roots and Wings
Sequioa’s Treehouse
Steamboat Island Preschool
(and more to come!)

For more info: 360-866-8047 or Olympiacommunityschool.org or
olyalternativeschools@gmail.com or you can find us on Facebook.

Teresa Eckstein is mom to Owen & Jacob who have been raised in alternative education.

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Book review

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:10pm

Gaia Conspiracy: The Last Days of Homo Rapiens
2010 / 377 pages

With any press exposure to thinking people, Don Richardson’s Gaia Conspiracy—The Last Days of Homo Rapiens should be a bestseller.  Exposure to non-thinking people will make them thinkers. Though this is a work of fiction, the facts, discussions and enlightenments brought out make this an especially valuable book that all of our citizens should read. Our nation, and the whole world,  are in dire peril. Political corruption of our governments, destruction of our environment, pollution of the land, sea and air and economic inequality brought about by the greed of the 1% through their corporations are leading us to total destruction. Most scientists and thinking Americans realize and acknowledge the forces of climate change are putting human life and the planet at grave risk. Business and government leaders ignore the facts and continue on their quest for wealth and power. They do not give a thought to the perils faced by humankind all over the globe.

The book

A group of Americans of varying backgrounds and education embark on a canoe trip in Alaska. It is their desire to experience its beauty and wilderness before global warming brings about its destruction. Their guide is a sincere and knowledgeable American who dominates the narrative on climate change.

Richardson introduces each of those who have applied for the trip by way of an interview. In this manner he can decide the merits of each applicant and their affinity for group cohesion. The author’s use of the interview is an effective way of giving the reader insight into each of the characters.

The guide is sincere in his belief that climate change presents a real threat to all life. He provides narrative on the subject while the group takes a rest break each day and in the evenings when they stop for the night. The group members add their own opinions and feelings to the narrative. These narratives are written in a direct style, which are easily understood and  initiate further discussion.

The author’s examination of the events of 9/11 and the causes of global warming are right on and demand some kind of response. As the days pass, the group members develop close relationships and they begin to feel that something must be done about climate change.

The decisions they eventually make will not be what the reader might expect. Although this is a work of fiction, one may be disturbed by the group’s actions.  I expect readers will undergo some soul searching on the ethical implications.

Richardson’s characters decide they want to share their lives with each other. Other decisions they make carry a huge risk to their lives. The tension mounts as they decide on who and what. Their actions come like a bolt out of the blue rejecting a logical or an expected development. But in the context of the story and of our times, the measures taken carry entirely different associations. The seemingly ghastly events disturb the balance of emotions and thought.

Through the discussions by the characters in this book one becomes aware of the total disaster with which we are confronted. They create a wake-up call for all responsible people in the world in order to bring attention to the late hour. They set out, at great personal risk, to make selected abusers pay a personal price for their crimes against humanity and Mother Earth and to serve as a warning to others. Change their ways or they will no longer need the great wealth that they have accumulated.

The book is excellent entertainment as well as waking people up to the problems we face. Talking and petitions can no longer be depended upon to bring results fast enough. This is a book that all concerned citizens should read. We all need to take personal responsibility to do what we can to bring corrective change, even if it is just to wake people up. We can no longer wait for Joe to do it. We must take action, too, even if what we do is not quite as dramatic.

J. Glenn Evans is a founder of PoetsWest and Activists for a Better World, hosts PoetsWest at KSER 90.7FM, a nationally syndicated weekly radio show, and is author of four books of poetry: Deadly Mistress, Window in the Sky, Seattle Poems and Buffalo Tracks, author of three novels, with The Last Lumber Baron as a works in process. Evans has been a resident of Olympia since December 2014.

Copyleft 2016 

 

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Two vignettes and the totalitarian rhetoric of Donald Trump

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:09pm

Views from without and within

Vignette # 1: Bad eating habits 

A few decades ago in Latin America, depending on considerations of class and culture, it would have been Chinese, Indian, or African kids who served as the ethnic group chosen by parents to be the signifier of distant commiseration, the psychological instrument used to persuade their kids—through guilt—to finish the food served at the table. At my grandmother’s house, kids were similarly the chosen demographic signifier, but not just any young member of a stereotypical “third world country” would do. No, she was always precise, my grandmother, creating a map in my mind of the specific distant nation where injustices occurred, and which, in some way, in spite of geographical distance, had immediate localized consequences in my life.  “Eat all your food,” she would say, in a pleasant voice the tone of which was dissonant with the ominous message that followed,  “because in the United States there are hundreds of thousands of starving kids!”

I don’t remember whether my grandmother’s gastro-social announcements caused the expected effect on me, and whether—in a precocious act of Pharisaism—I ended up eating all the food on my plate as expected. I do remember, though, having an intransigent position against certain colors in foods (green mostly) that gave my grandmother plenty of opportunities for exhorting me to think of the distant children in the U.S., and just as many opportunities for me to listen to her epicurean dictum. Back then, as a child, food wasn’t necessarily a source of pleasure; rather, it had the flavor of a somewhat forced and remote solidarity mixed with compulsory labor, a feeling that well meaning American food servers sometimes evoke in me in restaurants when they ask, gesturing to my plate, “are you still working on that?” as if the act of eating itself was marked by toil and effort, inverting the reality of the situation, in which I pay to be served food and am allowed—even expected—to overlook for a minute the real work incorporated into my meal, beginning with  the food production process, the labor of farmers and pickers and processers and transport drivers, to its arrival at the restaurant, and the labor of cooks and dishwashers, and indeed the very labor of the server her or himself.

I don’t remember reflecting on the validity of my grandmother’s statement about the United States.  The image I had in my mind of the U.S. had been created by watching cowboy movies in the cinema across the street from my parent’s house, and browsing the toy section in the Sears Catalog, which certainly showed no “niños” starving to death on its pages. All these “niños” seemed to be white, happy, well fed, and surrounded by wonderful possessions.  Nonetheless, regardless of the contrast between my image of children in the U.S. and my grandmother’s, as it is still, food encaged politics as a skull encages ideas, and this happened independently of my age, my annoying palate, and my age appropriate political ignorance about how the world’s wealth and food supply was created and distributed.

Later in life—and this I regret—I never asked my grandmother why she focused on the United States as the place where young kids experienced hunger. I knew her politics were not particularly radical—she was a Catholic and she was a conservative, although not a reactionary. She liked the United States, and overall she was democratic in something close to the Greek sense of the word, but I doubt whether she had time to follow closely the politics and social statistics of either Eisenhower or Kennedy’s administrations. She wanted me to finish my food and she appropriated the name of one country with that purpose. I’ll never know her real reason for choosing the U.S. Was it ideology? Did she secretly like the Soviet Union? Was it a mischievous linguistic game? Was it just a normative motivated utterance in which she was trying to alter my bad eating habits, with no ulterior motives whatsoever?  I’ll never know for sure, but it turns out that she was basically right.

In the U.S., there are serious limitations on kids access to food. In their 2014 report, “Income and poverty in the United States”, the U.S. Census Bureau states that 15.5 million or approximately 21 percent of children in the U.S. live in poverty. In their 2015 book Household Food Security in the United States, Coleman-Jensen, Rabbit, Gregory, & Singh point out that 15.3 million children lived in ‘food insecure households’—food insecurity being the euphemism used by the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture to describe the condition of having limited or uncertain access to food. According to various reports from UNICEF, it is now a well-known fact that the U.S. record on child poverty is one of the worst in the developed world.

Vignette #2: A caustic post on Facebook

It was with certain surprise and disbelief that I read a comment written by my mother on Facebook, in response to a post of mine urging MoveOn.Org to endorse Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. Given the generational and geographical differences between us (she lives in South America), I must admit I did not expect—wrongly so, as it turns out—this level of social media participation on her part, nor had I anticipated the caustic tone of her words:

“The United States… without political future, without good candidates, one worse  than the other. It is a pity that this continues to be the way it is, a vicious circle of shameful administrations … and the people do not protest”.

This political indictment of the United States, made by a Latin American woman in her mid-eighties, broke some tacit (and slightly embarrassing) image I held of the maternal octogenarian who is my mother. Her post represents an understanding of politics both as a mean of communication in the traditional way (using Facebook in this case), and simultaneously as the expression of collective will, in the form of protest and open discontent. My aim here is not to scrutinize the accuracy of my mother’s indictment nor the exactitude of her representation of the United States, but rather the intentionality behind the message, broadly speaking, which contains the same pessimism about the U.S. as was expressed by her mother (my grandmother) decades ago around the dining room table.

Donald Trump’s representation of America

Given that these are, after all, electoral times, I think it’s relevant to examine and contrast my grandmother and mother’s representations of America with the one being developed by Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency. Needless to say, the Republican candidate was born and has spent practically all of his life in the U.S.  My two ancestors were born overseas, and one of them—my grandmother—never visited the United States. While Trump is constructing a representation of his nation of origin, my maternal forebearers were and are constructing a representation of the nation of “the other.” As we know, Trump is building what he expects to be a winning electoral representation of the future of his country, a “Strong America” with him at the center as “The Strong Man”. This political picture is expected to buy him new real estate in DC, and also help him project a different image of the United States internationally. Different though they might be, Trump’s representation and those of created by my relatives are also similar in that any representation must suggest some kind of meaning and significance. By examining the meaning and implications of the complex agglutination of symbols that are being manipulated and sold to the American people, we can discern the true political content of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign.

Most political analysts have pointed out three main characteristics of Trump’s so far successful political style: his cavalier relationship with facts (from domestic to international politics); his anti-immigrant stands (mainly against Muslims and Mexicans); and his ability to agglutinate discontent particularly among white, economically poor, and not well educated segments of the electorate. However, according to a recent study conducted by Matthew McWilliams for “Politico Magazine”, there is a new, more significant variable that sheds light on Mr. Trump’s popularity: Authoritarianism.

In fact, the national poll that served as the basis for the article suggests that most of Trump’s supporters are not conditioned by issues of race, economics, or educational level, but by their attraction to an “Authoritarian Personality.” According to McWilliams:

“Trump’s electoral strength and his “staying power” have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. And because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will  continue to grow”

The article points out that the study of the “Authoritarian Mind” is not a new topic within political theory; in fact, it has been a constant theme related to the emergence of fascism in Nazi Germany (see authors such as Theodore Adorno, and the most recent, Bob Altemeyer, on this topic). But what has immediate relevance for the future of this nation is to notice the following: First, authoritarians rally to and embrace submission to strong leaders; second, they express high levels of aggression against outsiders or minorities; and finally, the are inclined to embrace the values endorsed by the followed leader.

The previous panorama is not necessarily good news for those who believe that democracy and authoritarianism are somehow antagonistic values. As McWilliams indicates:

“So what does this mean for the election? It doesn’t just help us understand what motivates Trump’s backers—it suggests that his support isn’t capped. In a statistical analysis of the polling results, I found that Trump has already captured 43 percent of Republican primary voters who are strong authoritarians, and 37 percent of Republican authoritarians overall. And in a general election, Trump’s strongman rhetoric will surely appeal to some of the 39 percent of independents in my poll who identify as authoritarians and the 17 percent of self-identified Democrats who are strong authoritarians.”

The Trump phenomenon has altered traditional primary expectations within both political parties, and others have pointed this out. What’s emerging now, and perhaps my mother was picking up on this from afar, is that its authoritarian content is also altering the potential images and political representations available to us to describe America, its body politic, and the form of life we choose to live under.

Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.

 

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From constitutional rights to human rights

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:00pm

The King I wish I had known

The representation of Martin Luther King Jr. that I grew up with, being only 10 years old when he was murdered, was very similar to the image portrayed in the powerful film, “Selma”, and like most people I know, I grew up reading and discussing the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

But what happened after Selma, after the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed? How far-reaching were King’s dreams?

Turns out, King’s analysis of what needed to happen next has yet to be fulfilled. As we march through an election season, listening to candidates pitch their visions of the future to the electorate, I strongly recommend that readers pick up the collection of his essays called “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” The clarity of King’s vision usefully illuminates the issues before us today.

In his introduction to the essays, Vincent Harding suggests that in these later pieces, King was attempting to speak to white allies whose support had begun to diminish as the campaign shifted from working on constitutional rights (like the right to vote) towards fundamental human rights (like the right to adequate housing and income). For instance, in  his essay “Where Do We Go From Here” King put it like this: “So far, we have had constitutional backing for most of our demands for change, and this has made our work easier, since we could be sure of legal support from the federal courts. Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the realm of human rights”

Continuing in a vein that will resonate with readers today, King wrote:

“The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of $750 billion a year, it is morally right to insist that every person have a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family. Achievement of these goals will be a lot more difficult and require much more discipline, understanding, organization and sacrifice.”

Ending “economic strangulation” for all who are poverty-stricken

Just as mass nonviolent action led to constitutional changes, so too, King argued, was mass nonviolent action necessary to move the human rights agenda forward. King acknowledged that many, especially in the North, believed that demonstrations and overt and visible protests could be replaced by the use of legislation along with welfare and anti-poverty programs. King disagreed, arguing that change would only come through mass-action movement. He also argued that the movement for human rights needed to be grounded not only in ending the “economic strangulation” of the Negro, but of other poor people as well:

As we work to get rid of the economic strangulation that we face as a result of poverty, we must not overlook the fact that millions of Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Indians and Appalachian whites are also poverty-stricken. Any serious war on poverty must of necessity include them. As we work to end the educational stagnation that we face as a result of inadequate segregated schools, we must not be unmindful of the fact, as Dr. James  Conant has said, the the whole public school system is using nineteenth-century educational methods in conditions of twentieth century urbanization, and that quality education must be enlarged for all children.

To get where we need to, King argued, we need a “radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.” Such a restructuring depends on overcoming the evils of racism, poverty and militarism, King wrote, and in their place, he wrote, “our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered.”

How we become responsive to the needs of the poor

According to Harding, in addition to mass action, King’s theory of change depended on two key components: a “coalition of Negroes and liberal whites that will work to make both major parties truly responsive to the needs of the poor” and the recognition that “the larger economic problems confronting the Negro community will only be solved by federal programs involving billions of dollars.”

In this time of election build-up, it’s helpful to re-read King’s farseeing analysis and ask ourselves his questions in a literal way, e.g., where is the multi-racial coalition working to make either or both of the major political parties truly responsive to the needs of the poor? Based on the presidential debates, only those running for the Democratic nomination are responding to the needs of the poor in systemic ways, proposing reforms of the tax code to redistribute wealth and an increase to the minimum wage (though their positions vary). Still, a strong and focused multi-racial coalition focused on economic justice and basic human rights has yet to become the dominant voice in the Democratic party.

King also argued that we need to seek radical change, not minor reforms. As he put it, let us “not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.” The “revolution” proposed by the Republican candidates does not lead to a more noble expression of our humaneness, and in fact, as many have pointed out, it does just the opposite. That leaves the Democrats, and in the last debate, in and out of the tussles over policy proposals, and questions about what the candidates said about each other, there was a call for a revolution, a reframing of the questions we are asking. And at the heart of that revolution lies the need for campaign finance reform. The need for it would likely not have surprised Dr. King, given earlier efforts to limit people’s participation in elections, nor would the ferocity of the Supreme Court’s protection for wealthy elites in the Citizens United decision.

We need a revolution that begins in the place King landed, where racism must be addressed by making our economy person-centered, rather than profit- or property-centered.

Emily Lardner lives and works in Olympia, Washington.

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The truth must be told

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 7:59pm

The in-custody death of Raymond Eacret

Raymond Eacret, 34 years old and a proud Yurok Tribal Member from Trinidad Rancheria, of Eureka, CA, died “in custody” in the Humboldt County Correctional Center on Friday, June 26, 2015.  Raymond was held on a misdemeanor charge and was due to be released that evening. Then something went horribly wrong. Just hours earlier his mother, Sheila Eacret, received a message telling her ‘not to worry and charges were dropped,’ her son would be released around dinner time, 4pm,  that very day.  Relief would soon turn into deep sorrow, grief and outrage. The next time Sheila would see her son would be after his death, framed as a “suicide” by Humboldt County officials, his lifeless body bludgeoned.

“I was refused to see my son until after the autopsy which was against all Native rights,” Sheila Eacret said, “I had every right to prepare him spiritually due to his being Native American with a roll number. Denied that right, I was angry and confused.”

A number of conflicting reports have surfaced, including the police narrative, which was amplified via most news outlets.  Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey said in a press release that Raymond was found by an unnamed Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) correctional deputy “hanging from a makeshift noose that was wrapped around his neck” in the medical section of the Humboldt County Jail.  There is also a conflicting report in which another officer is stated to have said Raymond was laying in his bed when he was discovered dead.

Another person, who was in the medical department at the time Raymond was brought there, told Sheila Eacret there is “no way someone could take their own life in medical.”  This person also said that when Raymond was brought to medical he had been horribly beaten and that he was unconscious.  The Sheriff’s press release states “life saving efforts were immediately initiated…This incident is currently under joint investigation by the HCSO and the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO).” Or, in other words, Humboldt County is investigating itself on this matter.

When Sheila Eacret was finally able to see her son Raymond, she was horrified.  Raymond was covered in bruises–he had two black eyes and his nose was broken.  His torso also appeared to had been kicked multiple times. Raymond’s back was broken. Sheila described ribs that stuck out with swellings around the wounds the “size of  watermelons.”  There was a cut about three inches deep in Raymond’s neck and whatever was used to caused this deep cut was also used to strangle him. It did not go all the way around his neck.  One of Raymond’s ears was bleeding and bruised.  Clearly, he was the victim of a horrible, violent assault.

“Our Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department, the County Jail and Coroner’s office are one in the same, they run all three, they are in it together,” said Shelia Eacret.  “To get any kind of justice or truth you have to get at least one (entity) away from here.”

Sheila took pictures of her son’s injuries and demanded an independent autopsy and secured a lawyer.  She is fighting for justice so that no other mother has to go through what she is experiencing.  She doesn’t believe the Humboldt County system should be investigating itself.

“My son wasn’t the first young Native American to mysteriously be hung in this jail and die, there was a 25-year-old Native American from Hoopa that was also killed in there on a misdemeanor and was going to get out.  Our system is flawed and allows authorities and deputies to kill anyone in that jail and get away with it. I think officers should have to obey the same laws they are suppose to uphold and should be held accountable for murder like anyone else. A badge and key does not give them the right to take someone’s life. They will be held accountable for this crime.”

That 25-year-old Native brother from Hoopa is a Yurok man named James “Hans” Peters, who was brought into the Humboldt County Jail in late June 2007.  According to the Sheriff’s Office,  in August 2007, James Hans Peters was being held in a solitary cell after he had “assaulted a correctional officer” and was waiting to be transferred to Napa State Hospital for a court ordered psych eval. It was on August 29, 2007 that James Hans Peters was said to have “hung himself with torn bed sheets” from a vent in the ceiling. Officers did not inform Hans’ family (he was called Hans by those close to him) of his death.

After hearing the news from an anonymous hospital employee, the family went to the Humboldt County Jail in search of their son and demanding answers. The Sheriff’s Office responded sternly and threatened to have the family arrested.  Hans’ mother and relatives were not allowed to see Hans’ body for over 20 hours.  James “Hans” Peters was killed/died in custody in Humboldt County Jail within three months of two other victims, Peter Stewart and Martin Cotton.  All three men were disabled, all three had been diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Raymond Eacret is one of many Loved Ones to die violently while in police custody in the United States.

On July 13, 2015 a 24-year-old pregnant Lakota Woman and mother of two, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, was being held in Brown County Jail in Aberdeen, South Dakota. She was complaining of excrutiating pain.  She was denied medical care, told to “quit faking,” and was dragged to a holding cell so officers and other inmates would not hear her screams.  She died shortly after.

In November 2015 it was reported that in that year there have been at least 550 in-custody deaths in Texas alone so far.  Five hundred and fifty human beings, just in the state of Texas.

One of those 550 people managed to make it to the forefront of national media.  Just one, and she was a woman.  She died the same day as Sarah Lee Circle Bear, on July 13, 2015.  And she was Black.  Her name is Sandra Bland.

Raymond Eacret’s violent death also happens within a greater context of in-custody deaths caused by law enforcement in the state of California.  Deaths like 23 year old Victoria Arellano, an HIV-positive Transgender woman and migrant from Mexico, who had been detained at a mens’ Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in May of 2007 in South Los Angeles.  Victoria started showing signs of illness and pleaded (along with other male detainees) that she receive medical care. Her request for medical care was denied and Victoria died on July 20, 2007. There’s also the recent mysterious in-custody deaths of Kristen Hamilton, 51, of Antioch who died in West County Jail in April 2015 and Elizabeth Gaunt, 56, of Santa Rosa who died at Lake County Jail in August of 2015.

Almost every single victim of in-custody deaths in California—and nationwide—have at least one of these things in common:  being Indigenous, Black, Disabled and/or Poor. Recently, the Idriss Stelley Foundation (ISF) has organized an action called #IdidDIEinSanFranciscoCustody, which includes formal demands for the treatment of Disabled detainees and transparency regarding recent in-custody deaths at the San Francisco County Jail.  One demand being no more in-custody deaths.  In the past two years, the ISF has advocated for the families of those killed in-custody and investigated  the violent wrongful in custody deaths of five men: Alvin Hayes, Alberto Petrolino, Antolin Marenco, Brette Robinson, and Darnell Benson.  All five were Disabled, and each are Indigenous, Black and or Poor.  These violent deaths are far from isolated, and they are all related.

Since the death of her son Raymond Eacret, Sheila Eacret has been grieving.  She has also taken a stand. She is demanding justice so that no other Mother has to experience what she is going through.  In being vocal in a rural area, Sheila is being harassed and terrorized by members of law enforcement in and around Eureka, CA.  She is being profiled, singled out, and threatened for fighting for justice for her son.  The press and police are in it together, vilifying her family.  One of the officers acknowledged knowing her son, Raymond, as a scare tactic.

Raymond’s Mother, Sheila Eacret, who is grieving the loss of her son, does not feel safe. She fears for her life.

Lisa Ganser is a white Disabled genderqueer artist from the Mission District of San Francisco recently transplanted to Olympia, WA.  They are the daughter of a momma named Sam and this is their first story as a writer for POOR Magazine.

This article was originally in POOR Magazine, based in Oakland, CA. The organization is a poor people led/indigenous people led non-profit, grassroots, arts organization dedicated to providing revolutionary media access, arts, education and solutions from youth, adults and elders in poverty across Pachamama (Mother Earth).

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In memory of the great Rosa Luxemburg

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 7:58pm

Rosa Luxemburg [1871-1919], the Polish-born revolutionary and writer, was one of the most original theoretical minds of the early twentieth century. Her work stands as a testament to the great social of upheavals of the time and a life lived in struggle for a better world.

She ultimately suffered for her convictions, spending time in jail between 1904 and 1906 and again for three and a half years for opposing the First World War, before her brutal and untimely death in 1919 at the hands of the proto-fascistic Freikorp.

[Below is] an extract from The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg that shows her characteristic mix of astute political and social analysis and incredible compassion for her fellow creatures.

 The letter, written around Christmas 1917 from her prison cell in Breslau to fellow SPD-member Sophie Liebknecht, relates an incident in the prison courtyard between a guard and a buffalo carrying piles of torn and bloodied clothes sent from the frontlines.  –John Merrick / 15 January 2016

The letter

Oh, Sonyichka,

I’ve lived through something sharply, terribly painful here. Into the courtyard where I take my walks there often come military supply wagons, filled with sacks or old army coats and shirts, often with bloodstains on them … They’re unloaded here [in the courtyard] and distributed to the prison cells, [where they are] patched or mended, then loaded up and turned over to the military again.

Recently one of these wagons arrived with water buffaloes harnessed to it instead of horses. This was the first time I had seen these animals up close. They have a stronger, broader build than our cattle, with flat heads and horns that curve back flatly, the shape of the head being similar to that of our sheep, [and they’re] completely black, with large, soft, black eyes. They come from Romania, the spoils of war. …

The soldiers who serve as drivers of these supply wagons tell the story that it was a lot of trouble to catch these wild animals and even more difficult to put them to work as draft animals, because they were accustomed to their freedom. They had to be beaten terribly before they grasped the concept that they had lost the war and that the motto now applying to them was “woe unto the vanquished” [vae victis]…

There are said to be as many as a hundred of these animals in Breslau alone, and on top of that these creatures, who lived in the verdant fields of Romania, are given meager and wretched feed. They are ruthlessly exploited, forced to haul every possible kind of wagonload, and they quickly perish in the process.

And so, a few days ago, a wagon like this arrived at the courtyard [where I take my walks]. The load was piled so high that the buffaloes couldn’t pull the wagon over the threshold at the entrance gate. The soldier accompanying the wagon, a brutal fellow, began flailing at the animals so fiercely with the blunt end of his whip handle that the attendant on duty indignantly took him to task, asking him: Had he no pity for the animals?

“No one has pity for us humans,” he answered with an evil smile, and started in again, beating them harder than ever.

The animals finally started to pull again and got over the hump, but one of them was bleeding… Sonyichka, the hide of a buffalo is proverbial for its toughness and thickness, but this tough skin had been broken.

During the unloading, all the animals stood there, quite still, exhausted, and the one that was bleeding kept staring into the empty space in front of him with an expression on his black face and in his soft, black eyes like an abused child. It was precisely the expression of a child that has been punished and doesn’t know why or what for, doesn’t know how to get away from this torment and raw violence. …

I stood before it, and the beast looked at me; tears were running down my face—they were his tears. No one can flinch more painfully on behalf of a beloved brother than I flinched in my helplessness over this mute suffering.

How far away, how irretrievably lost were the beautiful, free, tender-green fields of Romania! How differently the sun used to shine and the wind blow there, how different was the lovely song of the birds that could be heard there, or the melodious call of the herdsman. And here—this strange, ugly city, the gloomy stall, the nauseating, stale hay, mixed with rotten straw, and the strange, frightening humans—the beating, the blood running from the fresh wound. … Oh, my poor buffalo, my poor, beloved brother!

We both stand here so powerless and mute, and are as one in our pain, impotence, and yearning. —All this time the prisoners had hurriedly busied themselves around the wagon, unloading the heavy sacks and dragging them off into the building; but the soldier stuck both hands in his trouser pockets, paced around the courtyard with long strides, and kept smiling and softly whistling some popular tune to himself. And the entire marvelous panorama of the war passed before my eyes.

Write soon. I embrace you, Sonyichka. Your R.

Sonyichka, dearest, in spite of everything be calm and cheerful. Life is like that, one must take it as it is, [and remain] brave, undaunted, and smiling—in spite of everything. Happy Christmas.

… R.

 

Letter and introduction courtesy of Verso Books, a left wing publishing house in the UK, and the graphic is provided courtesy of FCIT.

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Remembering Joel Nelson

Works in Progress - Mon, 02/08/2016 - 7:57pm
Joel Nelson

From the vigil for Joel Nelson. Photo: Lisa Ganser

Joel Nelson, a graduate of North Thurston High School and school athelic, was a son, brother, and lover.  His life struggles were brought to a sudden end January 5, 2016.

He is one more victim of the War on Drugs, which has fueled the ongoing militarization of local police departments across the nation and is focused on punishment rather than providing mental health services for those in need.

A gofundme page was created in memory of Joel Anthony Nelson and all proceeds will be donated to little league baseball.

Our heart-felt condolences to his family and to his friends. —WIP staff

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Court fees pose undue burden on poor

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 8:02pm

Reform needed for our state’s system of Legal Financial Obligations

Debtors’ prisons were abolished in 1842, yet people in Washington and around the country continue to be jailed for failing to keep up on payments for court-imposed fees. Others remain trapped for life in spiraling debt. Washington’s system of Legal Financial Obligations is destructive, advocates say, and the Legislature has an opportunity to change it.

Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) are charged to defendants in addition to jail time to compensate victims and finance legal or administrative services. A 2014 report by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services (CLS) found that Superior Courts in Washington can impose up to 20 different types of fees. Some LFOs—such as victim restitution and a DNA database fee—are required by state law. Others are discretionary, and include fees for requesting a jury trial, using a public defender, or even an annual $100 “collection fee.”

LFOs accrue interest at a rate of 12 percent. The high interest rates and the annual collection fees have the effect of exacting a harsher penalty on people living in poverty, who pay more over a longer period of time than people with the means to pay off their fees at once. In some cases, a person can make steady payments for life without ever paying down their debt.

The Blazina decision

State law requires judges to look at a defendant’s individual circumstances and ability to pay before imposing discretionary LFOs, but this determination has not been consistently applied. The 2014 ACLU/CLS report cited that discretionary LFOs were “routinely” imposed on poverty-stricken defendants in the four counties they investigated, including Thurston County.

The State Supreme Court brought this issue to the forefront last March when it announced its decision in State of Washington v. Blazina. The case involved two Pierce County defendants that were given LFOs far exceeding their capacity to pay. The decision called out the trial court’s responsibility to conduct an individualized assessment to verify ability to pay before imposing discretionary fees.

Efforts have been underway to inform clients and attorneys about defendants’ rights and the standard for determining ability to pay. Nick Allen, a staff attorney in the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services, points to a workgroup held by the Washington State Office of Public Defense and the CLE courses it has led throughout the state as signs of progress.

Judge Carol Murphy, Presiding Judge for Thurston County Superior Court, said in an email that she estimates that discretionary fees have been ordered less frequently in recent years in Thurston County as a result of “increased awareness by the parties, attorneys, and judges.”

Still, Allen notes discrepancies in the way the law is enforced throughout the state. “It’s not necessarily being followed everywhere,” he said.

Debtors’ prisons

Preventing courts from imposing LFOs on indigent defendants is only half the battle. The other challenge is ensuring people are not jailed for inability to pay.

Federal law states that a person can only be incarcerated for “willfully” refusing to pay, but there is no standard on how “willfully” is defined. Allen has seen people arrested over perceived signs of financial means that do not take into account an objective measure of a person’s economic status, citing cigarettes or a nice wristwatch as justification for incarceration. Others have been jailed for failing to contact a clerk.

Statistics on imprisonment over nonpayment vary from county to county, but nowhere in Washington locks up more indebted prisoners than Benton County, where one in five inmates is behind bars because of legal debts.

The ACLU filed suit against the county in October alleging that it “jails, threatens to jail, or forces manual labor” on people who are unable to pay. While the situation in Benton County is particularly severe, it is emblematic of a larger problem across the state.

Trapped for life

Incarceration for indebtedness is only the most visible way that LFOs imprison offenders after they’ve done their time. The more insidious damage comes from mounting debt that can follow an offender for life.

LFOs begin accruing interest at a rate of 12 percent on the date of the order, so debts can balloon substantially by the time the inmate is released from jail. Re-entry is challenging, and economic hardship can linger. The ACLU/CLS report noted that as many as three in five newly-released offenders are unable to find work one year out of prison. In this situation, even the basics can be out of reach.

“It might not sound like much to the average person out there,” Allen said. “But $25 a month, for a lot of these folks, is unpayable.”

The debt keeps growing, and the threat of incarceration for nonpayment looms.

People relying on public assistance are almost categorically indigent, but the 2014 ACLU/CLS report found that many people in Thurston County are routinely required to apply these benefits toward paying down their debt.

Offenders are not the only ones to pay the price. The report also found that in many counties, annual collection fees are often skimmed off the top rather than paid down after restitution, delaying compensation for victims.

The way out

Washington has a ready-made roadmap to end this cycle. House Bill 1390, which was introduced last year, would eliminate interest for non-discretionary LFOs, prioritize payment to victims over court and legal fees, and establish clear guidelines for what constitutes willful nonpayment and ability to pay.

This bipartisan legislation passed out of the House with a vote of 94-4, but it was amended in the Senate to weaken many of the House provisions and remove the courts’ responsibility to make an individual assessment of the defendant’s ability to pay before imposing LFOs.

The amendment, which was explicitly retroactive, would have nullified the Supreme Court’s Blazina decision. This scenario was unacceptable to advocates, who say an individualized examination of ability to pay is the underpinning of any semblance of fairness in our system of LFOs.

“The principle of the Blazina case…should be strengthened, not reversed,” Sam Merrill, former Clerk of the Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy (FCWPP), said in an email.

Merrill has been active in advocating on this issue with the Olympia-based Justice Not Jails, a group of Friends (Quakers), Unitarian-Universalists, and other concerned individuals aiming to reform our justice system. People interested in supporting this effort can work with Justice Not Jails to take part.

Like Merrill, Allen was frustrated by the changes the Senate made to the bill last year. Despite the challenges, he is optimistic about the prospects for the coming session:

“The 94-4 passage on the House side shows that this is not a partisan issue—there’s bipartisan support. We’re seeing that what the Supreme Court said in Blazina is true, and that is that we have a broken LFO system…Legislators want to fix that broken LFO system, and there’s no better time than now to do this.”

Michaela Williams is a former legislative staffer. She lives in Olympia, WA.

Editor’s note: According to the Tri-City Herald, on December 1, Benton County Commissioners voted to eliminate credit for jail or work crews to pay off debt. ACLU’s lawsuit continues though because there are people still in jail and warrants are still being written for “outstanding obligations.”

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Let’s welcome Syrians to the U.S.

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:58pm

A look back at this nation’s rejection of Jewish refugees during WW II

(The following is an edited version of a talk at a forum held at The Evergreen State College—After Paris: Responding to Islamophobia and the Refugee Crisis—given by Peter Bohmer on December 2, 2015)

First, a little about my parents and grandparents

My family is from central Europe; my mother and father were born and grew up in Vienna, Austria as assimilated Jews. In March 1938, the Austrian government welcomed the invasion of Nazi Germany although there was some popular resistance. Germany immediately annexed Austria. My dad who was 22-years-old was arrested and imprisoned in late March 1938 for activity in the Jewish community. He was beaten by the guards but was released in August 1938. My parents immediately fled Austria for France which let in many Jews though they also limited entry; e.g., from Poland which had the largest Jewish population in Europe.

An imminent invasion of France by German was expected so my parents knew they needed to leave France as soon as possible.  They wanted to immigrate to Australia or the United States, but, at first, couldn’t get a visa to either.  They were able to find a U.S. sponsor and with the assistance of an official in the U.S. embassy in France they came to the U.S. a year later in June, 1939, shortly before German occupied France.

The St. Louis, a ship with 900 Jews fleeing Germany was refused entry to the United States in the same year and was sent back—one-third of whom were later killed in concentration camps. The majority of Jews who applied for entry into the United States between 1938 and 1940 were refused permission.

In 1939, my grandmother managed to escape from Vienna to Sweden where we had relatives. She was unable to get a visa to the United States even though my parents were sponsoring her. She finally received one from Cuba where she lived until 1946 when she got a United States visa permitting her to come to Queens, NY where we grew up.

Her ex-husband, my grandfather, also left Vienna returning to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia where he was born and had grown up.  He was hidden on a farm by a Catholic family for the entire war. He died of cancer in 1945, shortly before the war ended. He was a holocaust victim because he was prevented from going to a hospital for fear of being discovered. The family who hid him for five years committed a courageous act of solidarity. They risked their own lives to help my grandfather.  I hope people here today have the same courage.

Parallels

I have recounted this family history because of the many analogies between the situation and treatment of Jewish and Roma (sometimes called Gypsies) at the beginning of World War II with Syrians today.  If the United States and England and other countries outside of Europe had opened their borders more widely, hundreds of thousands or more Jews and others fleeing fascist persecution would have survived.

During the period of the late 1930’s and 1940-1941when emigration from Europe was more possible than later in the war though was severely restricted (by whom?), the primary reasons given for limiting Jewish entry into the United States in this period included the following:

  • The United States is a Christian nation—Jews are not Christian but an alien religion.

Consider the analogy to Islamophobia.  To Islamophobes, Islam is an alien religion that threatens “our” values and therefore Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis should not be permitted to enter. It is Jeb Bush and the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, saying the U.S. should only accept Syrian Christians.

  • Many politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, and many in the mass media, radio and newspaper, claimed Jews were communists or anarchists and/or Soviet agents who were coming to revolutionize the United States and overthrow the government and should not be let in.

This is analogous to the argument today and especially since 9/11/2001 in the U.S., Canada and many European countries that Muslims are taking over, want to take over and therefore should be excluded.

  • In a 1939 Gallup poll, 61 percent of those interviewed said they were against 10,000 Jewish children from Germany being allowed to come and live in the United States. Only 30 percent were in support. This two-to-one margin is a ratio similar to many other polls, e.g., among college students against admitting Jews into the United States.

This two to one ratio against Jewish entry, 75 years ago, is similar to many polls today on whether to admit Syrian refugees to the United States. In a recent Washington Post poll, 54% responded they were against any Syrians being admitted.  Thirty-one governors support stopping all Syrians refugees from living in their states, either permanently or temporarily, until there is careful checking one by one of each person applying to live there.  Fortunately governors do not have that power, only the federal government does. These pronouncements by these governors both reflect and contribute to the anti-refugee and anti-Arab and Anti-Islamic climate that we must challenge in words and practice.

The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill in which 47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans that calls for temporarily banning all Syrian and Iraqi applicants from gaining refugee status.

  •  Nazis would enter the U.S. with false papers claiming they were Jews  fleeing Germany or  that Jews would be blackmailed to be spies to save relatives back home. President Franklin Roosevelt and the State Dept used this argument of potential spies among those wanting to enter the U.S. as a reason for severely limiting entry.

In my research on this claim, I found only one person was charged as a Nazi spy even though the FBI conducted thorough investigations of those seeking entry, which continued long after their entry to the United States.  My own parents were again interrogated by the FBI after a few years to determine whether they were Nazi agents; they were not.

A similar claim is being made today in the U.S. although not one person convicted in the U.S. of a terrorist attack here is a Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan refugee. There are already thorough security background checks of those who want to come here. Moreover, the price of trying to obtain absolute security means closing and further militarizing our borders with increased surveillance and police powers at home.  Meanwhile, the cost in human lives caused by exclusion is immoral and, therefore, not acceptable.

  •  The United States should be doing more for its own population and can not afford to spend money on refugees.

A sign at a recent anti-refugee demonstration at the State Capitol on November 20, 2015 read “Vets Before Refugees.”

This was also the argument in the late 1930’s, in a period of even higher unemployment and poverty than now.   There are 40 million poor people in the United States, using government definitions, and in reality twice that, continuing racial and women’s oppression, growing economic inequality, police violence and mass incarceration disproportionately against Black, Latino and Native Americans, and many other issues.  However, the people who oppose Syrian refugees and immigrants are also the same people who oppose policies such as full employment, raising the minimum wage, reproductive rights, veteran’s benefits, and taxing the wealthy and corporations, all of which would help both refugees and the oppressed here. These right-wing fear based politics go far beyond Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

The cost

The estimated cost of Obama’s proposed resettlement plan of Syrians in the U.S. in 2016 is $1.2 billion. A 20% additional tax on the income of top 1% would yield over $600 billion dollars a year, which could end homelessness and make housing more affordable, fund free college for all, provide affordable and universal high quality health care and make childcare more accessible. It could end poverty.  In addition, the government could raise the minimum wage, and at little cost could increase employment. So it will not either help refugees or help people already living here, but will help both.

We need to strengthen social movements demanding immigrant, economic and social justice and/or supporting candidates such as Bernie Sanders who wants to both support refugees and U.S. residents.  This is not meant as an endorsement of Sanders as he does have limitations, but he does address many of these urgent issues.  If we cut the military budget and release many prisoners there is even more money available for ending poverty and accepting refugees.

In addition, I was in Greece last summer, a country whose population is equivalent to that of Washington and Oregon, but where more than 700,000 refugees have entered during the last year— the majority Syrian.  For the most part, those entering Greece do not stay for extended periods. They enter primarily on small boats from Turkey and hope to go further west. Many die during their passage to Greece in overcrowded boats not built for rough waters. There is an intense exploitation by those profiting from organizing these dangerous voyages similar to those profiting from the immigration to the United State of those fleeing economic and political violence from Mexico and Central America who are also refugees.  I am impressed by the solidarity exhibited by thousands of Greek people, many whom are poor and unemployed, sharing their food, clothing, medicines, and even their houses with refugees. We can do that here, too.

Obama has proposed resettling 10,000 Syrians in the United States in 2016 and has challenged the extreme fortress America, close our borders rhetoric. This is positive move, but admitting only 10,000 is insufficient. It is analogous to the limited entry that was granted to Jews, Roma and others fleeing the Nazis.  According to the United Nations there are four million Syrian refugees outside of Syria, mainly in Turkey, Lebanon  and Jordan, and seven million internally displaced refugees—together almost half of the Syrian population. They are victims of ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, and the murderous Syrian State of Bashar al-Assad. According to the UN, more than 250,000 Syrians have been murdered since 2011, mainly by the Assad government. The numbers are growing daily. This is equivalent in relation to population of three million people being killed in the United States.   We should be accepting and welcoming far more than 10,000 Syrians a year.

France, even after the horrific November 13 mass murder in Paris said they would still accept 30,000 Syrians over the next two years.

There are many parallels to past U.S. fears and restricted permission of  Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution  in the 1930’s and early 1940’s to the  almost total exclusion of  Syrians today including the restrictions on entry for those from Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, and Central America, thousands of which are Central American children.

I make this comparison because it is far easier to criticize the past and its accepted ideology of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathy than the Islamophobia of the present. In general, we are not as conscious of how inhuman and reactionary is the current ideology that espouses anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rationalizations because we hear these ideas daily. I ask you to be as critical of our current anti-refugee and discriminatory policies as we now are now of the policies in the late 1930’s.

Steps forward

We should talk to our friends, acquaintances, family, fellow students and workers, in our places of worship and in our communities about fighting fear-based racist politics and welcome to the United States those whose lives are in danger. Syrian refugees are victims and not the cause of the extreme violence and growing poverty in Syria.

One concrete step at the Evergreen State College that we can do is to invite Syrians outside the United States to apply as students and make it affordable for them to attend.  Other institutions should figure out concrete ways to aid Syrians and other refugees such as providing sanctuary. We should all be educating the public and changing policy.

Let us learn from our mistake so we do not repeat the harm that was caused so long ago.

Peter Bohmer is a professor of economics at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

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The difference between what was signed in Paris and what we need in Washington—now!

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:50pm

Regarding fossil fuels

Everyone wants to believe the agreement reached in Paris is definitely “better than nothing.” For all countries, big and small, this “self-prescribed” neutrality climate pledge of 2 degrees-with 1.5 Celsius appears to be a good idea. However, voluntary compliance seems a rudimentary flaw in the plan–a serious misstep in creating the setting for this somewhat lofty, more likely unachievable goal. According to 350.org, “this agreement finalized by politicians” is unmonitored (for all practical purposes) and voluntary, leaving many skeptical as it should us all. While it may look beneficial on paper, as a practical application it makes little sense. Another flaw is its intent to begin leaving fossil fuels in the ground at mid-century—another serious misstep for its failure to address the current crisis, a crisis fully exposed by the scientific community, yet underplayed by the greed of others.

Who are responsible for creating this nonbinding, voluntary, self-monitored deal? Huh? (Answer me that!)

As broadcast on Democracy Now!, the treatment of “Rising Tide” activists and others in Paris was unsettling. Rising Tide was the brains behind “Shell No” and the resistance to Shell’s oil drilling rigs seeking shelter at the Port of Seattle. They, along with a coalition of organizations and individuals, also resisted Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic. Peaceful kayak demonstrations were staged to draw attention to the proposed Arctic oil drilling—a proposal with potentially immeasurable threats to waters and people. Known as peaceful and informative group in Paris, Rising Tide and other individuals were forcibly removed from the “Paris Petroleum Fair” for nothing more than a gathering to expose the plan of the corporation-Engie to frack across Europe. The company is also known in Australia for its effects on health and the environment by its coal industry. For this peaceful appearance, they were forcibly removed from the Paris affair, many carried out in the arms of police wearing riot gear and away from the booths set up for fossil fuels corporations to exhibit their wares. Journalists were blocked from filming.

So what does this say for the rest of us and our voice in the climate summit in Paris? Not much.

It leads one to wonder whether this supposed quantum leap for climate control gives us any leverage for our own grassroots posturing for the health and safety of our citizens here in Washington or Grays Harbor or Vancouver or Anacortes or Cherry Point. We are a citizenry that is in opposition to an unbelievable 20-some proposals to place billions of gallons of oil and coal in our own backyards and in and on our coastal waters. Must we wait and see if the Paris “voluntary” agreement plays out? Must we wait until all the crude oil has been fracked in North Dakota and hauled through our state? Must we wait until all the crude oil has been barged out and tankered away to China? Must we wait in the anticipation of these billions of gallons of coal and oil to be burned and the carbon emissions blow back to Washington contributing to our carbon emissions here and elsewhere? Wait and see as the agreement states, until 80% fossil fuel is still left in the ground-checking every five years to see if everyone is following the Paris playing rules?

No!

Time is of the essence…we need leverage here and now. Excuse me if the Paris “Agreement” seems so far away, so nebulous, too big or badly organized to function efficiently: unwieldy. That it requires too much watchdogging. And there remain several, more legitimate questions: How does this “agreement” trickle down? Better, yet, does it trickle down to the people at the bottom of the power heap? Were the people equitably, or even remotely, represented at COP21? Probably not, if Rising Tide was shown the door at this Paris Exhibit. Probably not, if most were in the streets carrying signs and not at the table talking. Were the people by the railroad tracks in the blast zone or living on the edge of toxic coal mines and terminals here in the U.S.A represented? The Indigenous peoples in North Dakota, the Bakken Shale, whose homeland is being toxified and fracked to death-now-today! Talk about a government ignoring the plight of a suffering group! You will find it right here in this country. In the blast zone!

It is difficult to grasp the idea that progress was made in Paris and to be reassured that the effects of climate change effects will be lessened. An agreement that will “begin leaving fossil fuel in the ground at midcentury” is especially hard to grasp when you are sitting in your house near the railroad tracks in Aberdeen, Washington, waiting for those explosive, polluting crude oil trains to come rolling by on a more than daily basis. The threat of losing your home is very real. The threat of losing the value of your home by 30% is more real.

And what about the millions of gallons of oil placed beside a wildlife refuge that hosts thousands of globally migrating shoreline birds; the monopolization of the Port of Grays Harbor by 2.7 billion gallons of crude oil, yearly. The oil barges and tanks that are coming will be here at the expense of the Quinault Indians’ treaty rights of 1856.  Each crude oil train carries far more than was spilled by The Exxon Valdez in 1989 on waters not yet restored and financial obligations not yet paid to those who lost everything. It could happen to us.

In spite of public outcry and 122,000 public comments against coal and crude oil shipments by rail, and against Imperium & Westway’s storage and shipping in Grays Harbor, the beat goes on.  Those living in Vancouver await the verdict of Tesoro—the largest proposed crude oil terminal in America poised for operation. While Paris talked, Tesoro readies to fire up their business of oil, toxicity, and the probable ruination of a coastline and marine life. Big Oil Tesoro needs only a wink and a nod from our governors. But he could say, “No, now; we’re not waiting for mid-century.” He could volunteer to implement climate change here in his home state. Now.

As for me, this Paris voluntary climate change stuff rings less of progress and more of placebo—the logic of it escapes me. Perhaps there is little logic to it, huh, Governor?  Undoubtedly, Washington State’s governor took notes on ways to implement the Paris Climate Agreement in order to decrease carbons and save our lives, health, water and environment-beginning with efforts here in Washington State. Right now, before mid-century when the Paris Agreement fires up. Right now is the chance for the “green” governor to help us continue our status as the Evergreen State! We cannot wait for the Paris agreement to kick in. No to fossil fuel infrastructure in Washington State…now.

Paris is too little, too late. It may be better than nothing. We’ll see come midcentury or beyond.

Carol Seaman lives on the Chehalis River in Grays Harbor.

 

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Strategies 360—oil and coal lobbyists who wield great influence in state government

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:45pm

Northwest firm is behind Longview refinery, Arctic drilling, and more

The fossil fuel divestment movement has scored a string of successes across the country, convincing universities, cities, and philanthropies to dump their investments in coal and oil. Now, as the Northwest stares down the barrel of five Keystone XLs’ worth of pipelines and export terminals, it’s time to turn the same sort of scrutiny on the lobbying and PR firms who do Big Oil’s dirty work locally.

Over the last few years, Sightline has shined a light on a range of firms surreptitiously pocketing dirty coal and oil money—and perhaps no group deserves a more gimlet eye than Strategies 360.

Senior staff at the firm make liberal use of a revolving door between big business and government: they rotate from top flight positions in Washington’s state capitol…

To read more, go to http://www.sightline.org/2015/06/10/stop-doing-business-with-strategies-360/

 

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Every Breath You Take, I Can’t Breathe

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:43pm

What kind of world do we live in?

Will the violence never cease?

Sting was to appear at a Black Lives Matter rally

‘til he saw a sign that read “Fuck the police”

 

Don’t stand so close to me

I’ll be watching you

Now we treat Muslims

The way we once did Jews

 

I know he’ll probably win

And we’re in for a rocky journey

But I’d advise to duck Donald

And give your vote to Bernie

 

So I’m sending out an S.O.S.

Hoping that ultimately

Democracy and logic

Will trump all this B.S.

 

by broKEN

Kenneth continues to struggle through poverty, bringing home the bacon only when it’s free. The starving artist is what he has been branded; though he writes from the left, he is definitely right-handed.

 

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Community Sustaining Fund of Thurston County announces recipients

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:36pm

This grant cycles’ grantees and their funded projects:

Stonewall Youth:  Sponsorships for four youths to participate in two anti-oppression/social justice workshops ($600)

The South Sound Estuarium:  Purchase of a cooler system for an aquarium. ($600)

Fertile Ground: Acquisition of a street sign, community bulletin board, and seasonal garden interpretive signs. ($475)

Lacey Loves to Read: Honorarium for guest speaker, Kwami Alexander, Newberry Award poet. ($500)

Nisqually Land Trust: Funding for workshops to train advocates. ($100)

Art Forces/Rafah Mural Project:  Funds for the ongoing Olympia-Rafah Mural project. ($425)

 

The Sustaining Fund also plans to sponsor internships this coming year and will attend the TESC intern fair January 27.

 

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How dangerous is Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric?

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:34pm

Last month, I spent a weekend in New York City visiting family, and as I rode the subway in Manhattan from Columbus Circle to 34st, and from Grand Central to 40st in Queens, and from Herald Square to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I thought about the attacks that happened in Paris. I was still thinking about them again when I sat with my husband and step-daughter and granddaughter in a French café near Bryant Park—about how meaningless our lives would be to killers like those in San Bernadino or Paris, and how much our lives mean to us. I found myself trying to wrap my mind around ISIS not with the intention of becoming an expert, but because the kinds of killings that happened Paris and San Bernadino and Beirut are likely to occur again—and I need a way to think about them.

In “The Farce Awakens,” a November op-ed piece in the New York Times, Paul Krugman compared the Republicans’ response to the attacks in Paris to their response to the Ebola virus last year, arguing that “these days, panic attacks after something bad happens are the rule rather than the exception, at least on one side of the political divide.” I think he’s only partly right. Whipping up a frenzy about threats that don’t and won’t materialize has become a current rhetorical practice in our national political discourse: at the same time, it’s not reasonable to assume that similar attacks won’t happen in any of the places where people I know and love may be. What’s issue is what we do in response to those threats—and that depends on trying to understand them.

Dangerous concepts

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could avoid the widely reported (and widely watched) comments from the Republicans seeking to be president—and fail to notice the dangerous ideas they are promoting. With one exception (Rand Paul), all the Republican candidates argue that the best response to ISIS is through an increase in violence—increasing the intensity of the ongoing air war and ramping up the U.S. presence in Syria by thousands of troops. Gabrielle Levy, writing for US News in December, further characterized their positions like this: “Front-runner Donald Trump leads the pack with his plan to block all non-American Muslims from entering the country and to shut down Internet access in parts of the world where the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, is active. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, climbing in the polls, advocates a plan to ‘carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion’.”

Intensifying the war in the Middle East is a bad move for many reasons, but it’s being sold as a “straightforward” strategy to keep us safe. Donald Trump’s rhetoric is the most dangerous, because he’s an expert at appealing to his audience with his seeming off-the-cuff remarks, and the most extreme in his views. Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman just published an article in The New York Times based on an analysis of 95,000 words spoken by Trump on the campaign trail. One rhetorical move he makes is the frequent use of “us” and “them”—where “them” connotes a wildly oversimplified and falsely characterized group of others who become villians in Trump’s discourse. Another Trump tactic is to personalize arguments, dismissing and insulting the speaker rather than addressing the content of the issue. Most dangerous, perhaps, is Trump’s tendency to dismiss reasonable evidence:

Mr. Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric. “Nobody knows,” he likes to declare, where illegal immigrants are coming from or the rate of increase of health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, even though government agencies collect and publish this information. He insists that Mr. Obama wants to accept 250,000 Syrian migrants, even though no such plan exists, and repeats discredited rumors that thousands of Muslims were cheering in New Jersey during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He promises to “bomb the hell” out of enemies—invoking Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and he says he would attack his political opponents “10 times as hard” as they criticize him.

Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric is dangerous. On December 22, the Guardian reported that a British Muslim family of eleven was preventing from boarding their plane from London to LA by U.S. officials who refused to explain why. The family, two brothers and nine of their children, were on their way to visit cousins in southern California and make a trip to Disneyland. They had shopped in the duty-free shop, and were ready to board when they were turned away.

According to the Guardian, one of the brothers, Mohammad Tariq Mahmood, said that no one explained why their entry was barred, the airlines refused to refund the $13,340 they had spent on the eleven round-trip tickets, and they were forced to return everything they had purchased in the duty-free shops before they were escorted out of the airport: “I have never been more embarrassed in my life. I work here, I have a business here. But we were alienated,” Mahmood said.

Writing about the incident for the Guardian, British Labour MP Stella Creasy urged the British government to take action, given that a week after the incident occurred, the U.S. has yet to explain why they targeted this British family. Taking a strong position against what she calls the “trumping” of British citizens, Creasy wrote this:

Just a week ago, parliamentarians were united in agreement that Trump’s views were abhorrent. Now we should do more than shrug our shoulders at secretive American security policies that leave our constituents in such limbo. If the embassy won’t answer to the family’s MP, it should answer to their prime minister and he to us about what he is doing to ensure that no British citizen is being discriminated against for their faith on our shores.

Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the U.S. silence on this issue, provides fuel for the very cause ISIS champions. Mr. Mahmood reasonably pointed out that the whole experience of being lead out of the airport, with no reasons given at that time or in the weeks that followed,  instead of leaving for the planned-in-advance, ticketed and packed for vacation with family, was “alienating.” No kidding. And it’s not that feeling alienated inevitably leads someone to engage in violence, like shooting people at a concert. But acting in ways that might reasonably be predicted to lead to alienated feelings among Muslim is wrong, on every level. And that’s what the application of Trump’s rhetoric seems to be doing.

What ISIS wants

Writing for the blog Lawfare, Jessica Stern reports that in the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s on-line magazine, the organization sets forth two “options”. The first is to spread a “totalitarian caliphate” throughout the region, and then the world. The second is “to polarize Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions within the West, and to turn the West against Islam, with the ultimate goal of “goad[ing] the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the crusaders prophesized to be held at Dabiq in Syria”

On this second point, the goal of turning the West against Islam, inciting internal divisions within the West, and polarizing Muslims against each other, Adam Shatz, writing for the London Review of Books, argues that we can no longer make the assumption Bush once did—that we could fight terrorism “there” so we won’t have to fight it “here.” As Shatz writes, the distinction between here and there doesn’t hold up anymore; the borders are porous:

(ISIS) is as keen to conquer virtual as actual territory. It draws on a growing pool of recruits who discovered not only IS but Islam itself online, in chatrooms and through messaging services where distance vanishes at the tap of a keyboard. Indeed, the genius of IS has been to overcome the distance between two very different crises of citizenship, and weave them into a single narrative of Sunni Muslim disempowerment: the exclusion of young Muslims in Europe, and the exclusion of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.”

While Trump is peddling his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and finding success, what we actually need to focus on are the core issues that always need tending: assuring basic human rights for everyone, including a living wage, a place to live, a chance to be happy.

In contrast, where we are far from that place. In her analysis about why ISIS has had success turning European Muslims against their homelands, Jessica Stern points out that the pool of disenfranchised Muslim youth in Europe is large. She writes:

In the most recent European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, one in three Muslim respondents reported experiencing discrimination, with the effect greatest among Muslims aged sixteen to twenty-four (overall discrimination rates decline with age). Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than “native” Europeans. Consequently, Muslim immigrants in Europe are disproportionately impoverished. While ten percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line, that number is 59 percent for Turks and 56 percent for Moroccans in Belgium. There are 4.7 million Muslims living in France, many of them in poverty.

Adam Shatz points out that 70 percent of the prisoners in French jails are Muslims. He argues that “a long-term project to end discrimination against Muslims, and ensure their participation in the workplace, civic life and politics, would help to reduce the temptations of radical Islamism”—but no such project is in the works in France, nor has such a strategy been suggested by any of the Republican presidential contenders, particularly Donald Trump. Investing more money in the U.S. military at the expense of funding social services, raising the minimum wage for everyone, and insuring everyone has access to health care and good educations will only get us deeper into this swirling mess. Couple that with hate speech directed at Muslims, and it only gets worse.

Resisting the Seduction of Simplistic Rhetoric

As Miriam Padilla pointed out in last month’s Works in Progress, any of us could lose a loved one. The key, she wrote, is this: “it is up to us as workers, students, immigrants, and feminists—of every color, religion, and nationality—to come together and unite to end all the violence against us everywhere, by ending the wars and oppression and exploitation that are its root causes.”

Miriam is right, I think, and where we need to start—where we seem to have the most agency—is working on ending exploitation and oppression through specific policy changes at the local, state, and federal level. It matters who we elect—it matters whether you vote. I used to think that ISIS—what it is, why it exists, and how to respond to it—was important to understand, but way outside my expertise. That position is dangerous. We are living in a time where bad thinking cloaked in simplistic rhetoric trumps the good thinking required from all of us if we are going to help steer the course of our future.

Emily Lardner lives and works in Olympia, Washington.

 

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Reaffirmation of our shared commitment to a free and open society

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:30pm

Statement Concerning the Climate of Political Intolerance:  A voice vote was taken on the statement below at the December 9, 2015 Faculty meeting  and passed by overwhelming yes vote with one abstention. 

We, members of the faculty at The Evergreen State College, are deeply troubled by the extreme intolerance of the present political scene in the United States. Particularly worrisome are some of the demagogic, hateful and openly racist statements emerging from the field of Presidential candidates, echoed by members of Congress, governors, and other officials. In recent months we have seen rhetorical slanders against Mexican immigrants, Muslims, refugees, Black Lives Matter activists, women, and even people with disabilities. The Paris attacks of November 13 prompted discussion of closing mosques, mass surveillance, and the creation of databases of refugees—and perhaps all Muslims. Many governors demanded a ban on all immigration of Syrian refugees to the United States. One presidential candidate compared them to “rabid dogs.” Another has proposed that we kill the families of terrorists. Such inflammatory comments, appealing to deep-seated prejudice and fear, can only serve to degrade public discourse, weaken the defense of cherished civil liberties, and prepare the ground for authoritarianism and violence.

To combat these troubling developments, as part of our stated mission to further social justice, we at The Evergreen State College:

  1. Applaud the statement by Governor Jay Inslee welcoming Syrian refugees to the State of Washington. We further encourage an increase in the proposed number of those refugees allowed into the United States during this period of humanitarian crisis.
  2. Encourage, to the extent possible, our own Evergreen State College to be a part of the process of resettlement of these immigrants. We also endorse tuition support and an expedited admissions process to allow Syrian students to attend Evergreen.
  3. Condemn the wholesale scapegoating of members of the Islamic faith, and those of Middle Eastern ethnicity, because of the reprehensible acts of a few. We denounce the exploitation of public fears by political figures seeking to build support at the expense of whole groups of innocent people.
  4. Condemn the abusive political rhetoric against African Americans, Black Lives Matter activists, undocumented Mexican and other immigrants, people with disabilities, women, and others. We deplore this uncivil and intolerant discourse, and encourage our community members to publicly defend the rights and liberties of those under attack.
  5. Promote an ethics of welcome towards all refugees, recognizing their right to human dignity. We are also mindful that climate change, war, and economic crises will continue to produce migrations for a long time to come.
  6. We welcome and echo this November 21 statement issued by the American Academy of Religion, the world’s largest scholarly society devoted to the critical study of religion:

The American Academy of Religion is deeply troubled by the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States and around the world. Hate speech and intemperate political discourse aimed at Muslims and other religious groups are opposed to the values of our learned society and to the most cherished commitments of American civic culture. We call on our members, other scholars of religion, and all Americans, to reject that divisive and dangerous speech and to reaffirm our shared commitment to a free and open society where all residents’ rights are recognized and protected.

 

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Police brutality and its discontents  

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:24pm

The destruction of the Black body in America

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.

                 Ta- Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (a letter to his son)

I. The deceased

It seems fair to say—at least for rhetorical purposes—that the first group of those discontented with police brutality are those unable to express discontent, or any other form of human expression for that matter, due precisely to the brutal actions of police that have cost them their lives.  At the moment of this writing (Dec 10), according to data compiled by “The Counted”, an interactive program designed by The Guardian (US), there have been 1063 people killed by the police this year, which amounts to an average of three people per day before the end of December 2015. More than half of them have been male (745), and in terms of Race and Ethnicity, the majority of them have been Black, killed at a rate of 6.34 per million; followed by Native Americans, at  rate of 3.4 per million; Hispanic Latino at a rate of 3.05 per million; White, at a rate of 2.67 per million; and Asian Pacific/Islander, at a rate of 1.01 per million.

No other advanced capitalist society in the world comes even close to this level of killing of its own people on a daily basis. Within this context, it is hardy coincidental that no official U.S. government organization keeps close track of this social event. It appears to be a clear case of an intentional statistical deficit, particularly for a country that takes pride in the quality of its quantitative record keeping about a myriad of information and exercises high levels of surveillance over its citizens. It’s impossible not to conclude that we live in a society that is both selective in its killings, and even more selective about what it wants to keep in its official recorded memory.

However, as demonstrated by the incidents beginning in Ferguson and continuing in numerous other American cities, communities of color know and remember. Large numbers of Black Americans are not willing to ingest the saccharine pill of social amnesia, i.e. at the moment of this writing there are huge protests against the police in the streets of Chicago challenging police brutality. The widely reported events of police brutality just this year—coupled with the record of the historical past—demonstrate that there is a pernicious form of violence directed against black people in America. Black Americans are being killed at a rate disproportionate to their total percentage of the population as suggested by the statistics presented by The Guardian. The point here of course, is not to suggest an ‘equitable’ distribution of killings among different American ethnic groups, but to point out the systemic racist profiling of African Americans, or what in the words of Ta-Nehishi Coates constitutes a heritage of violence against black bodies, whose latest most visible expression is the killing of black citizens as an accepted “modus operandi” of some police departments throughout the nation.

Two main groups have taken prominence in opposing current police brutality. The first is loosely integrated by different variants of American liberalism searching for ideological solace under the umbrella of reformism. This group essentially seeks to pass policy reforms to affect police departments throughout the nation, hoping to create a more  ‘restrained’ image of the institution even as it continues to exercise the  ‘legitimized’ use of force granted by the state to the police and its members.  The second group is more radical and broad in the scope.  It understands police brutality not as an isolated event to be addressed within the quiet quarters of police departments and the thick municipal regulations of our cities, but as embedded in the structural racism of American society, which in turn is rooted in historical relations of power and oppression that can not be separated from broader social, economic, and political considerations. This second group is constituted by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and each of these two forms of discontent offers a unique perspective about the role of the state in a capitalist society, its ideological and political apparatuses, and the role played by its institutions of control and repression such as police departments. Each proposes a different set of strategies worth considering in our struggle against the abuses of power and in favor of the rights of all citizens.  The first group imagines how American capitalism should be. The second, knowing through historical experience how American capitalism works, explores ways to transcend it.

II. The discontent of the liberal mind

There are numerous ways to distinguish between liberal and radical thinking, or, in other words, reformist versus revolutionary thinking. Sparing the reader an unnecessary historical journey into the origin of liberalism, suffice here to say that liberalism understands the rights of the individual as if they were constituted autonomously, that is to say, independently of social, cultural, and economic constraints existing in a given society.  Within this ideological frame, the liberal mind understand issues such as equal rights, the respect of individual freedoms, and the conduct of social institutions such as the police as if they were merely the result of procedural principles of abstract justice to be solved within city halls by local politicians. By doing so, the liberal mind ignores the history and social context in which those rights, freedoms, institutions, and legal systems were put in place. The liberal mind, occupied as it is with the procedures of justice, fails to identify not only the main beneficiaries of existing capitalism in America, but also ignores at the same time the role played by popular struggles in the acquisition and defense of existing rights.

To point out the limitations of liberal reformers of capitalism in general, or of the police force in particular, does not mean to deny the value of reforms per se, but when it comes to reforms we must keep in mind two important factors: first, we must not restrict our political actions to reforms understood solely as taking place within the already complicated (on purpose of course) legal apparatus of the system; and second, reforms must be used to intensify—not to placate—the fight against all forms of capitalist exploitation.   No effective political response to police brutality will be possible if we continue to ignore among others, the following factors: (these factors were included in a previous article of mine on Ferguson)

  • The black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the white unemployment rate for 50 years.
  • During the second quarter of 2015, the national African American unemployment rate dipped below 10 percent for the first time in seven years. By way of comparison, although 6.9 percent is the lowest black unemployment rate in any state, it is essentially the same as the highest white unemployment rate (West Virginia’s).
  • The black poverty rate is no longer declining. In 2011, almost 28 percent of black households were in poverty, nearly three times higher than the poverty rate for whites.
  • Black children are more likely than whites to live in areas of concentrated poverty: 32% of black children, 30% of American Indian children, 24% of Hispanic children, 8% of Asian and Pacific Islander children and 5% of white children live in census tracts with poverty rates of 30% or more.
  • School segregation has increased since 1980, which means that “the more nonwhite students a school has, the fewer resources it has. A 10 percentage-point increase in the share of nonwhite students is associated with a $75 decrease in per student spending” (EPI).
  • The racial disparity in incarceration rates is bigger than it was in the 1960’s. While in 1960, the rates were 262 whites and 678 blacks incarcerated per 100,000 U.S. residents, by 2010, the rates were up to 1,313 whites and 4,374 blacks incarcerated per 100,000 residents.
  • A separate study on social mobility conducted by Richard Reeves showed that “Black children are more likely to be born into poverty than white children; but they are also less likely to scape poverty” (2013, Social Mobility Memos).

Black youth in America—a group frequently the object of police brutality—has been called Generation Zero, described by social scientist Henry Giroux as “a generation with zero opportunities, zero futures, and zero expectations […]  forced to accept a life of unstable labor and unstable living.  Too many young people and other vulnerable groups now inhabit what might be called a geography of terminal exclusion—a space of disposability.” Giroux continues: “As the war on terror comes home, public spaces have been transformed into war zones as local police forces have taken on the role of an occupying army, especially in poor minority neighborhoods, accentuated by the fact that the police have now access to armored troop carriers, night vision rifles, Humvees, M16 automatic rifles, grenade launchers, and other weapons designed for military tactics. Acting as a paramilitary force, many local police have become a new symbol of domestic terrorism”.

It is within the context of economic, racial, social, cultural, and military oppression that the latest expressions of police brutality and authoritarianism above the law can be better explained. Police actions are not the exclusive and direct result of the circumstantial bias of isolated individuals, or overworked cops in need of better working hours, or poorly trained police officers lacking multicultural proficiency or conflict resolution skills. Police brutality in America is the result of the long history of systemic racism and inequality, with the police force being one of the many repressive apparatuses of the nation state.  Liberal reformers can dream all they want about reforms, but those pipe dreams will be the repositories of things that very seldom come true, dreams not enduring enough, not far-reaching enough, unable to explain or transform reality.

III. The discontent of the “Black Lives Matter” movement

The well publicized killings of black men by the police have encountered the standard perfunctory liberal solidarity of many Democrats—principally mayors and other elected officials of big cities—threatening to obscure the true nature and significance of police brutality and monopolize popular discontent among black Americans. It is against this scenario—to which we must add the ‘team player silence’ of the Republican Party—that the “Black Lives Matter” movement has put back on the American political agenda racism and discrimination. Their political platform (Campaign Zero) poses a series of reforms and solutions that seek to intensify in more radical ways the fight against police brutality.

At the same time, according to Aziz Rana, author of “Race and the American Creed: Recovering Black Radicalism”, while recent narratives “like Campaign Zero, have put forward valuable concrete ideas for police reform…these demands must be combined with a more expansive and prefigurative politics. Activists must do no less than imagine and present their policy prescriptions, as did earlier generations, as competing ideals for liberation, solidarity and renewal.” In other words, we need a platform not from or for those who have lost faith in the possibilities of democracy, but a platform for and from those who have experienced its absence and want to make it real in the present.

While Campaign Zero doesn’t go as far as Rana advocates, what “Black Lives Matters” proposes is not a platform of lamentation but a platform of people in struggle. According to “Black Lives Matter”, their proposed reforms “constitute a comprehensive package of urgent policy solutions—informed by data, research and human rights principles—that can change the ways police serve our communities”. In the following paragraphs I have included almost verbatim the most significant points advocated by “Black a given a given society.ir platform—as a way to promote this first step towards necessary, more sweeping changes.a given society.ee www.campaignzero.org for more detail.

End Broken Windows Policing: A decades-long focus on policing minor crimes and activities – a practice called Broken Windows Policing – has led to the criminalization and over-policing of communities of color and excessive force in otherwise harmless situations. Police killed at least 287 people last year who were involved in minor offenses and harmless activities like sleeping in parks, possessing drugs, looking “suspicious” or having a mental health crisis. These activities are often symptoms of underlying issues of drug addiction, homelessness, and mental illness, which should be treated by healthcare professionals and social workers rather than the police.

Community Oversight: Police usually investigate and decide what, if any, consequences their fellow officers should face in cases of police misconduct. Under this system, less than 1 in every 12 complaints of police misconduct nationwide results in some kind of disciplinary action against the officer(s) responsible. Communities need an urgent way to ensure police officers are held accountable for police violence. As a solution “Black Lives Matter” proposes to establish an all civilian oversight structure with discipline power to work in collaboration with a Police Commission and a Civilian Complaints Office charged with removing barriers to reporting police misconduct.

Limit Use of Force: Police should have the skills and cultural competence to protect and serve our communities without killing people – just as police do in England, Germany, Japan and other developed countries. Last year alone, police killed at least 268 unarmed people and 91 people who were stopped for mere traffic violations. The following policy solutions can restrict the police from using excessive force in everyday interactions with civilians: Establish standards for reporting police use of deadly force. Revise local police department use of force policies. End traffic-related police killings. Monitor how police use force and proactively hold officers accountable for excessive force.

Independent Investigations and Prosecutions: Local prosecutors rely on local police departments to gather the evidence and testimony they need to successfully prosecute criminals. This makes it hard for them to investigate and prosecute the same police officers in cases of police violence. These cases should not rely on the police to investigate themselves and should not be prosecuted by someone who has an incentive to protect the police officers involved.

Community Representation: While white men represent less than one third of the U.S. population, they comprise about two thirds of U.S. police officers. The police should reflect and be responsive to the cultural, racial and gender diversity of the communities they are supposed to serve.

Body Cams / Film the Police: While they are not a cure-all, body cameras and cell phone video have illuminated cases of police violence and have shown to be important tools for holding officers accountable. Nearly every case where a police officer has been charged with a crime for killing a civilian this year has relied on video evidence showing the officer’s actions.

Training: The current training regime for police officers fails to effectively teach them how to interact with our communities in a way that protects and preserves life. For example, police recruits spend 58 hours learning how to shoot firearms and only 8 hours learning how to de-escalate situations. An intensive training regime is needed to help police officers learn the behaviors and skills to interact appropriately with communities.

End For Profit Policing: Police should be working to keep people safe, not contributing to a system that profits from stopping, searching, ticketing, arresting and incarcerating people.

Demilitarization: The events in Ferguson have introduced the nation to the ways that local police departments can misuse military weaponry to intimidate and repress communities. Last year alone, militarized SWAT teams killed at least 38 people. We need policies that prevent police departments from obtaining or using these weapons on our streets.

Fair Police Contracts: Police unions have used their influence to establish unfair protections for police officers in their contracts with local, state and federal government and in statewide Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights. These provisions create one set of rules for police and another for civilians, and make it difficult for Police Chiefs or civilian oversight structures to punish police officers who are unfit to serve.

IV. Choosing our form of discontent

It is up to us to decide which kind of political reform we support–the kind that restricts popular political action or the kind that strengthens it. It is up to us to define and create the type of country we want to live in. For now, the campaign proposals put forward by Black Lives Matter provide a good place to start.

Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.

 

 

 

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Brutalidad policial y sus descontentos

Works in Progress - Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:18pm

La destrucción del cuerpo Negro en América

Esto es lo que me gustaría que usted sepa: En América es tradicional destruir el cuerpo negro – es patrimonio

Ta Nehisi Coates, “Entre el Mundo y Yo (una carta a su hijo)

I. Los fallecidos

Parece justo decir—por lo menos por propósitos retóricos—que el primer grupo de  descontentos con la brutalidad policial son aquellos que no pueden expresar descontento alguno, o cualquier otra forma de expresión humana, debido precisamente a la violencia  policial que les costara sus vidas. En el momento de escribir estas líneas (10 de diciembre), según datos compilados por “The Counted”, un programa interactivo diseñado por The Guardian (EEUU), en lo que va del año1063 personas han sido asesinadas por la policía, lo que equivale a un promedio de tres personas por día antes de finales de diciembre de 2015. Más de la mitad de ellos han sido hombres (745), y en términos de raza y grupo étnico, la mayoría de ellos han sido Negros, asesinados a un promedio de 6. 34 por millón; seguido por los nativos americanos, a una tasa de 3,4 por millón; Latinos a razón de 3,05 por millón; Blancos, a una tasa de 2,67 por millón; y Asiáticos  a una tasa promedio de 1,01 por millón.

Ninguna otra sociedad capitalista avanzada en el mundo se aproxima ni si quiera remotamente a  estos niveles de matar diariamente a su propio pueblo.  Dentro de este contexto, no es coincidencia que ninguna organización oficial del gobierno de Estados Unidos mantiene un estrecho seguimiento de este evento social. Parece ser un caso claro de déficit estadístico intencional, sobre todo para un país que se enorgullece de la calidad de su mantenimiento de registros cuantitativos sobre una gran variedad de información y al mismo tiempo ejerce un alto nivel de vigilancia sobre sus ciudadanos. Es imposible no concluir que vivimos en una sociedad que es a la vez selectiva en sus asesinatos, pero incluso más selectiva  en los modos de mantener en su memoria oficial.

Sin embargo, como lo demuestran los incidentes de Ferguson los cuales continúan en muchas otras ciudades de Estados Unidos, las comunidades de color conocen y recuerdan. Un gran número de negros estadounidenses no están dispuestos a ingerir la pastilla de sacarina para amnesia social, en efecto, al momento de escribir este artículo hay enormes protestas contra la policía en las calles de Chicago en desafío a la brutalidad policial. Los acontecimientos ampliamente denunciados sobre brutalidad policial en el presente año—sumado al registro del pasado histórico—demuestran la existencia  de una forma perniciosa de violencia dirigida contra los negros en América. Negros estadounidenses están siendo asesinados a una tasa desproporcionada en relación con su porcentaje total de la población como lo sugieren las estadísticas presentadas por el Guardian. El punto aquí, por supuesto, no es sugerir una distribución “equitativa” de los asesinatos entre los diferentes grupos étnicos de América, sino señalar el sistemático  perfile racista de que son objeto los afroamericanos, o lo que en palabras de Ta-Nehishi Coates constituye un patrimonio histórico de violencia contra cuerpos negros, cuya última expresión es el asesinato de ciudadanos negros como el aceptado “modus operandi” de algunos departamentos de policía en el país.

Dos grupos principales han tomado posiciones protagónicas en oposición a la brutalidad policial actual. El primero está integrado por diferentes variantes del liberalismo americano en busca de consuelo ideológico bajo el paraguas del reformismo. Este grupo busca esencialmente  aprobar reformas en los departamentos de policía en el país, con la esperanza de crear una imagen más “restringida” de la institución, al tiempo que la misma sigue ejerciendo el uso “legitimado” de la fuerza que el Estado otorga a la policía y su miembros. El segundo grupo es más radical y mas amplio en sus objetivos. Entiende la brutalidad policial no como un hecho aislado que debe ser abordado en el silencio interior  de los departamentos policiales, o resuelto a través de los espesos reglamentos municipales de nuestras ciudades; pero como algo incrustado en el racismo estructural de la sociedad estadounidense, y que a su vez tiene sus raíces en las relaciones históricas de poder y  opresión que no pueden ser separadas de consideraciones sociales,  y políticas mas amplias. Este segundo grupo está constituido por el movimiento ‘Black Lives Matter’.  Cada una de estas dos formas de descontento ofrece una perspectiva única sobre el papel del Estado en una sociedad capitalista, sus aparatos ideológicos y políticos, y el papel desempeñado por sus instituciones de control y represión, como los departamentos de policía. Cada uno propone un conjunto diferente de estrategias que vale la pena considerar en nuestra lucha contra los abusos de poder y en favor de los derechos de todos los ciudadanos. El primer grupo se imagina cómo debe ser el capitalismo estadounidense. El segundo, sabiendo por experiencia histórica de cómo funciona el capitalismo estadounidense, explora maneras de trascenderlo.

II. El descontento de la mente liberal

Hay numerosas maneras de distinguir entre el pensamiento liberal y el pensamiento radical, o, en otras palabras, entre pensamiento reformista y pensamiento revolucionario. Evitando al lector un viaje histórico innecesario sobre el origen del liberalismo, baste aquí con decir que el liberalismo entiende los derechos de la persona como si estuvieran constituidos de forma autónoma, es decir, independientemente de las limitaciones sociales, culturales y económicas existentes en un determinado momento social. Dentro de este marco ideológico, la mente liberal entiende temas como la igualdad de derechos, el respeto de las libertades individuales y la conducta de las instituciones sociales como la policía, como si fueran simplemente el resultado de  principios procesales de justicia abstracta que se pueden resolver dentro de los ayuntamientos municipales por los políticos locales. Al hacerlo, la mente liberal ignora la historia y el contexto social en el que los derechos, las libertades, instituciones y sistemas jurídicos fueron puestos  en marcha. La mente liberal, ocupada como está con los procedimientos de la justicia, no logra identificar los principales beneficiarios del capitalismo existente en Estados Unidos, sino que también hace caso omiso del papel de las luchas populares en la adquisición y la defensa de los derechos existentes.

Señalar las limitaciones de los reformadores liberales del capitalismo en general, o de la policía, en particular, no significa negar el valor de las reformas per se, pero cuando se trata de reformas lo que debemos tener en cuenta son dos factores importantes: primero, no debemos limitar nuestras acciones políticas a las reformas entendidas únicamente como si estas tienen lugar únicamente dentro de la ya complicado (a propósito, por supuesto) aparato legal del sistema; y en segundo lugar, las reformas deben ser utilizados para intensificar—no para aplacar—la lucha contra todas las formas de explotación capitalista. Ninguna respuesta política eficaz a la brutalidad policial será posible si seguimos ignorando entre otros, los siguientes factores: (estos factores se incluyen en un artículo anterior mío sobre Ferguson)

  • La tasa de desempleo negro ha sido siempre el doble que la tasa de desempleo blanco durante 50 años.
  • Durante el segundo trimestre de 2015, la tasa de desempleo afroamericano nacional cayó por debajo de 10 por ciento por primera vez en siete años. A modo de comparación, aunque un 6,9 por ciento es la tasa más baja de desempleo negro en cualquier estado, es esencialmente la misma que la tasa de desempleo más alta blanca (West Virginia).
  • La tasa de pobreza negra ya no está disminuyendo. En 2011, casi el 28 por ciento de los hogares negros estaban en la pobreza, casi tres veces más alta que la tasa de pobreza para los blancos.
  • Los niños negros tienen más probabilidades que los blancos de vivir en áreas de pobreza concentrada: 32% de los niños negros, 30% de los niños indios americanos, el 24% de los niños hispanos, 8% de los niños de Asia y las islas del Pacífico y el 5% de los niños blancos vivir en secciones censales con tasas de pobreza de 30% o más.
  • n  La segregación escolar ha aumentado desde 1980, lo que significa que “a una mayor cantidad de estudiantes no blancos, corresponde una menor cantidad de recursos asignados a la escuela”. Un aumento de 10 puntos porcentuales en la proporción de estudiantes no blancos se asocia con una disminución de $ 75 en el gasto por estudiante “(PAI).
  • La disparidad racial en las tasas de encarcelamiento es más grande de lo que era en la década de 1960. Mientras que en 1960, las tasas fueron del 262 blancos y 678 negros encarcelados por cada 100.000 residentes en Estados Unidos, para el año 2010, las tasas fueron de hasta 1.313 blancos y 4.374 negros encarcelados por cada 100.000 habitantes.
  • Un estudio separado sobre la movilidad social llevada a cabo por Richard Reeves demostró que “Los niños negros tienen más probabilidades de nacer en la pobreza que los niños blancos; pero también son menos propensos a escapar de la pobreza “(2013, Movilidad Social Memos).

Los jóvenes negros  en América – un grupo con alta frecuencia como objeto de  brutalidad policial—ha llamado la Generación Cero, y descrito por el científico social, Henry Giroux como “una generación con cero oportunidades, cero futuros, y cero expectativas […] obligado a aceptar una vida de inestabilidad en el trabajo y en la vida. Muchos de estos jóvenes y otros grupos vulnerables ahora habitan en lo que podría llamarse una geografía de exclusión y exterminación—un espacio de desechabilidad” Giroux continúa:” A medida que la guerra contra el terror llega a casa, los espacios públicos se han convertido en zonas de guerra al haber las policías locales asumido el papel de un ejército de ocupación, sobre todo en los barrios de minorías pobres, acentuada por el hecho de que la policía ahora tienen acceso a vehículos blindados de tropas, rifles de visión nocturna, Humvees, M16 rifles automáticos, lanzagranadas y otras armas diseñadas para aplicaciones militares tácticas. Actuando como una fuerza paramilitar, muchos policías locales se han convertido en un nuevo símbolo de terrorismo doméstico “.

Es en el contexto de la opresión económica, racial, social, cultural y militar que las últimas expresiones de brutalidad policial y este  autoritarismo por encima de la ley puede ser mejor explicado. Las acciones policiales no son el resultado exclusivo y directo del prejuicios circunstanciales de individuos aislados o policías con exceso de trabajo que necesitan mejores horas de trabajo, o policías mal entrenados que carecen de competencia en métodos  de resolución de conflictos o habilidades multiculturales. La brutalidad policial en Estados Unidos es el resultado de la larga historia de racismo sistémico y  desigualdad, dentro de la cual la fuerza policial es uno de los muchos aparatos represivos del Estado. Los reformadores liberales pueden soñar todo lo que quieran acercaq de las reformas, pero no seran mas que depositarios de quimeras que rara vez se hacen realidad, sw sueños sin duracion o alcance suficiente, incapaces de explicar o transformar la realidad.

III. El descontento del movimiento “Black Lives Matter”

Los muy publicitados asesinatos de hombres negros por la policía  han encontrado la estándar solidaridad liberal superficial  de muchos demócratas—principalmente alcaldes y otros funcionarios electos de las grandes ciudades—los cuales amenazan con oscurecer la verdadera naturaleza y el significado de la brutalidad policial e intentan monopolizar el descontento popular entre los estadounidenses negros. Es en este escenario—a los que hay que añadir el “silencio cómplice’ del Partido Republicano—el movimiento “Black Lives Matter” ha puesto de nuevo el racismo y discriminación en la agenda política estadounidense. Su plataforma política (Campaña Cero) plantea una serie de reformas y soluciones que buscan intensificar de manera más radical la lucha contra la brutalidad policial.

Al mismo tiempo, según Aziz Rana, autor de “La Raza y el Credo Estadounidense: Recuperación del Radicalismo Negro”, señala que “mientras que las narrativas recientes como Campaña Cero, han presentado valiosas ideas concretas para la reforma de la policía … estas demandas deben combinarse con una mayor política expansiva y pre-figurativa. Los nuevos activistas deben hacer no menos que imaginar y presentar sus recomendaciones de política, como lo hicieron las generaciones anteriores, como ideales que compiten por la liberación, la solidaridad y la renovación”. En otras palabras, necesitamos una plataforma que represente no a  aquellos que han perdido la fe en las posibilidades de la democracia, sino una plataforma de quienes han experimentado su ausencia y quieren hacerla realidad en el presente.

Si bien es cierto que Campaña Cero no va tan lejos como quisiera Rana, “Black Lives Matters”  no es una plataforma de lamentaciones sino una plataforma de personas en  lucha. Según  “Black Lives Matter”, sus propuestas “constituyen un paquete completo de soluciones políticas urgentes—respaldada por datos estadísticos, investigación, y basada en principios de derechos humanos—que puede cambiar la forma que la policía sirve a nuestras comunidades”. En los siguientes párrafos he incluido casi textualmente los puntos más importantes promovidos por “Black Lives Matter” en su plataforma como una forma de promover este primer paso hacia los cambios más radicales. Ver www.campaignzero.org para obtener más detalles.

Fin de la Policía de Ventanas Rotas: Una práctica policial de décadas, centrada en la vigilancia de  delitos y actividades menores que ha llevado a la criminalización y el exceso de vigilancia de las comunidades de color y el uso de fuerza excesiva en situaciones de otro modo inofensivas. La policía mató al menos 287 personas el año pasado que estuvieron involucradas en delitos menores y actividades inocuas como dormir en los parques, posesión de drogas, lucir “sospechoso”, o tener una crisis de salud mental. Estas actividades son a menudo los síntomas de los problemas subyacentes de la adicción a las drogas, la falta de vivienda, y la enfermedad mental, que deben ser tratados por profesionales de la salud y trabajadores sociales en lugar de la policía.

Supervisión de la Comunidad: La policía suele investigar y decidir lo que en su opinión, serian las consecuencias que sus compañeros oficiales deben enfrentar en casos de mala conducta policial. Bajo este sistema, menos de 1 de cada 12 denuncias de mala conducta policial a nivel nacional resultan en algún tipo de acción disciplinaria contra el agente (s) responsable. Las comunidades necesitan de manera urgente el garantizar que los agentes de policía asuman responsabilidad y puedan ser juzgados  por violencia policial. Como solución “Black Lives Matter” propone establecer una estructura de  supervisión civil con el poder de disciplinar  y  trabajar en colaboración con una Comisión de Policía y un departamento de Quejas Civiles  encargado de la eliminación de barreras para denunciar faltas de conducta de la policía.

Límite del uso de fuerza: La policía debe tener las habilidades y competencia cultural para proteger y servir a nuestras comunidades sin matar a la gente – al igual que lo hacen la policía en Inglaterra, Alemania, Japón y otros países desarrollados. Sólo el año pasado, la policía mató al menos 268 personas desarmadas y 91 personas que fueron detenidas por simples violaciones de tráfico. Las siguientes soluciones pueden restringir a la policía en su uso de fuerza excesiva en las interacciones cotidianas con civiles: Establecer normas para reportar el uso policial de fuerza letal. Revisar los lineamientos del uso de violencia en los departamento de policía local. Poner fin a homicidios policiales relacionadas con infracciones de trafico tráfico. Seguimiento proactivo  de cómo la policía usa la fuerza y ​​enjuiciamiento  a  oficiales responsables de uso excesivo de fuerza.

Investigaciones independientes y  Fiscalía: Los fiscales locales dependen de los departamentos de policía locales para reunir las pruebas y testimonios que necesitan para procesar con éxito a criminales. Esto hace que sea difícil para ellos investigar y procesar los mismos agentes de policía en casos de violencia policial. Estos casos no deben confiar en la policía para investigarse  a sí mismos y no deben ser procesados ​​por alguien que tiene un incentivo para proteger a los agentes de policía implicados.

Representación Comunitaria: Mientras que los hombres blancos representan menos de un tercio de la población de la nación, ellos ocupan alrededor de dos tercios de los oficiales de policía de Estados Unidos. La policía debe reflejar y ser sensible a la diversidad cultural, racial y de género de las comunidades a las que se supone deben servir.

Cámaras de Cuerpo / Film la Policía: Si bien no son una panacea, las cámaras del cuerpo y videos de teléfono celular han iluminado los casos de violencia policial y han demostrado ser herramientas importantes para determinar funcionarios responsables. En casi todos los casos en que un agente de policía ha sido acusado del un delito por haber matado a un civil de este año se han basado en pruebas de vídeo que muestran las acciones del oficial.

Formación: El régimen de entrenamiento actual para los agentes de policía no los capacita efectivamente sobre la forma de interactuar con nuestras comunidades y proteger y preservar vidas. Por ejemplo, los reclutas de la policía usan 58 horas para aprender a disparar armas de fuego y sólo 8 horas para aprender a des-escalar situaciones. Se necesita un régimen de entrenamiento intensivo para ayudar a los agentes de policía a aprender los comportamientos y habilidades para interactuar adecuadamente con las comunidades.

Poner fin a la Practica Policial por Lucro: La policía debería estar trabajando para proteger a la gente, y  no para contribuir a un sistema que se beneficia de detención, búsqueda, detención, arresto y encarcelamiento de la gente.

Desmilitarización: Los acontecimientos de Ferguson han introducido a la nación  las formas en que los departamentos de policía locales pueden abusar de armamento militar para intimidar y reprimir a las comunidades. Sólo el año pasado, los equipos SWAT militarizados mataron al menos a 38 personas. Necesitamos políticas que impiden a los departamentos de policía la obtención o el uso de estas armas en nuestras calles.

Contratos Policiales Justos:  Los sindicatos policiales han utilizado su influencia para establecer protecciones injustas para agentes de policía en sus contratos con los gobiernos locales, estatales y el gobierno federal  en la llamada Ley de Derechos de Oficiales. Estas disposiciones crean un conjunto de reglas para la policía y otro para la población civil, y hacen que sea difícil para los jefes de policía o las estructuras de supervisión civil el castigar a los agentes de policía que no son aptos para servir.

IV. Elegir nuestra forma de Descontento

Depende de nosotros decidir qué tipo de reformas políticas apoyamos – el tipo que restringe la acción política popular o el tipo que la fortalece. Depende de nosotros el definir y crear el tipo de país que queremos para vivir. Por ahora, las propuestas de campaña presentadas por Black Lives Matter proporciona un buen lugar para empezar.

Enrique Quintero, un activista político en América Latina durante la década de los 70, enseñó ESL y adquisición de segundas lenguas en el Distrito Escolar de Anchorage, y español en la Universidad de Alaska Anchorage. Actualmente vive y escribe en Olympia.

 

 

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