Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Latest Rant—Un-Labor Day this Year?

Labor Day is coming up again.  For years most Americans have just regarded it as the book-end holiday to end the summer, a last day to play or feast with family and friends before returning to the serious business of work or school.  Of course union leaders who feel slighted at the absence of much attention on the day that was originally set aside to honor working people and their organizations wail with indignation at the effective national snub.
But who cares about them anyway, a lot of us think.  Their day is done.  They are as relevant in the new economy as buggy whips we are told.  Their persistence on the edges of society is barely tolerated, and is increasingly under attack with the approval of a wide swath of the population.
Maybe we ought to just junk the holiday all together.  People take too damned much time off work anyway. 
But if that is too unpopular to fly with middle class folks who treasure their long weekend, maybe it should be made as optional as Columbus Day or Martin Luther King Day.  Come to think of it, it already is for the increasing numbers of people employed in the retail, hospitality, and service industries who are expected to show up any day they are penciled in to a weekly work schedule.  Those folks ought to be glad they have a job.  Millions don’t and don’t have any real prospect of getting one.
Why don’t we acknowledge that and proclaim Un-Labor Day, a recognition of those now structurally unemployed, the ones who a few years ago had steady jobs and bright prospects—and mortgages, car payments, student loans, and credit card debt based on the assumption that their good fortune was permanent.  For millions it wasn't.  Unlike in previous panics, depressions, or recessions, there is no prospect that they will ever be recalled to their old jobs or find comparable ones. 
Their former employers have permanently downsized, “making do with less” it is called—with remaining employees are doing the work or four or five thus demonstrating improved productivity. They have been replaced by the cyber revolution just as surely as two centuries ago home weavers were made redundant by power looms tended by child hands.  Some whole industries, like print publishing, are vanishing before our eyes.  Finally if nothing else cuts costs and boost the profit margin, as many jobs as possible are simply shipped off shore, both traditional production and service.
Who else? Well, how about the young folks getting out of school.  A high school diploma, we are told is worthless.  But now so may be a bachelor’s degree, especially if the benighted student had the poor judgment to pursue the Liberal Arts or some other degree that is not basically a technical mastery certificate in some narrow field that itself may be obsolete in ten years.  Borrow money to make your dreams come true, they were told.   They enter the job market with bleak prospects and enormous debt—and those securing new loans will find that their interest rates greatly increase thanks to a supposed Congressional compromise saved them being doubled.   Student loan rates were already much higher than any other lending.  So let’s include the boys and girls who will be in their parent’s basements indefinitely and who may—or may not—find a job waiting tables or in an airless call center.
How about those who have exited the job market under the quaint notion that they should be able to retire.  Social Security is for leeches, we are told, who are stealing from their own grandchildren.  Pensions are a ponzi scheme which have already been stripped from most private employees.  Government workers, even less popular, are categorized as union thugs when they resist giving up theirs.  We are supposed to be responsible for our own retirement savings. Except that for many there isn’t a dime left after day-to-day expenses to put into that tax advantaged IRA.  Those who can are expected to work until they drop.  Those who can’t, well, what of them.
And then there are those who were always left out:  the disabled, the homeless, the prisoners—and boy do we have prisoners in this country like nobody's business, the highest incarceration rate in the world and apparently proud of it—the welfare queens and their unwanted broods.  The rest of us are resentful of “carrying their load” and cheer when politicians shred the despised “safety” nets that once kept their noses just above the surface as they tread water.  Now it’s sink or swim.  Maybe better sink and be done with it.
Most of the rest of us exhaust ourselves trying to stay out of one of these traps.
And finally are there are those who never really work at at all but are the lauded wealth creators to whom the rest of us owe due  obsequiousness.  Yes them.  They’re the ones!
So let’s loft a cold one and throw a burger on the grill for the true heroes of our new Un-labor Day!

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Brown Face of Vietnam War Protest

L.A. Country Sheriff Deputy prepares to fire a round of tear gas canister directly into the Silver Dollar Bar which will strike reporter Ruben Salezar in the head, killing him instantly.

We tend to put a pretty white face on the Anti-War Movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.  Whether we conjure images of student and hippy protestors, older Ban the Bomb demonstrators out for a new round of activism, the ladies of the Another Mother for Peace crowd, or the respectable middle class that began to turn out with the Moratorium, the faces we imagine are uniformly white ones.

Even the demonsratable contributions to the movement by people of color like Martin Luther King’s firmly stated opposition to the War in Vietnam tend to be obscured because we compartmentalize him with Civil Rights and non-violence.  The rising militancy of all kinds of minority and disadvantaged groups in the late ‘60’s is viewed as something apart from the anti-war movement.

But out West the Chicano Moratorium put a Brown face on war protest.  The Chicano Moratorium had its roots in East Los Angeles high schools where students organized walk out protests to the war and military recruiting on campus in 1968.  The students quickly drew the support of the Brown Berets, a militant Chicano—Mexican-American—movement modeled on the Black Panthers.  The Brown Berets were part of the loose coalition of such organizations that included Puerto Rican Young Lords in Chicago and New York, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and attempts to organize working class white kids by Rising Up Angry in Chicago and the White Panthers in Detroit.

By 1969 the L.A. students and the Brown Berets had organized the National Chicano Moratorium Committee (NCMC).  Soon groups from throughout the West were joining or lending their support, including Crusade for Justice, led by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales which was headquartered in Denver and active in Chicago as well.  A national organizing conference was held in early December at the Crusade’s Denver office which issued calls for demonstrations against the war and for a national Chicano youth conference the following May.

The first demonstration under the Chicano Moratorium banner was held in East L.A. on December 20 and attracted over 1,000 marchers.  A second demonstration on February 28, 1970 drew more than three times that number despite a pouring rain storm.  A local PBS documentary about that demonstration was used to spread word about the movement and organize new affiliates.

At the May youth conference Moratorium Co-Chair Rosalio Muno presented the resolution that called for a National Chicano Moratorium March in East L.A. for August 29 with supporting demonstrations in other cities.  On that date there were more than 20 demonstrations, most with at least a thousand participants in cities including Houston, Albuquerque, Chicago, Denver, Fresno, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Oxnard, San Fernando, San Pedro and Douglas, Arizona.

Of course the largest demonstration of all was in Los Angeles where participants from as far away as New York City, Mexico, and Puerto Rico joined local activists.  An estimated 30,000 marchers set off that day on a march from Belvedere Park to Laguna Park where a stage and speakers’ platform had been erected for a rally. 

Shortly after leading elements of the march were settling down in front of the stage, Los Angeles Police (LAPD), who had a history of attacks on the Chicano community, began dropping tear gas from helicopters and moving into the park with batons swinging.  They claimed that a robbery of a nearby liquor store had been committed by demonstrators.  March monitors and parade marshals resisted the move into the park but the marchers were soon forced back out onto the parade route, Whittier Boulevard and into the surrounding neighborhood.

Demonstrators began throwing tear gas grenades back at the police and some broke away overturning cars and setting fire to businesses.  Street fighting continued for more than an hour.  When it was over scores were injured, over 150 were arrested, and four were dead.  The dead were Gustav Montag, Lyn Ward, José Diaz and Rubén Salazar.

Montag, a Sephardic Jewish activist marching in support of the Chicano movement was deliberately targeted by police in an ally confrontation when officers armed with rifles opened fire on him at short range when he allegedly picked up something to throw at them.

The death of Salazar, probably Los Angeles’ best know Mexican-American journalist drew the greatest public attention.  He was a 42 year old award winning reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and News Director at the Spanish language T.V. station KMEX who had served as a war correspondent in Vietnam.  Since returning stateside he had covered the growing Chicano movement and on rampant police brutality in Los Angeles.

As the street disturbances wound down police fired teargas canisters from their shotguns directly into the Silver Dollar Bar where Sanchez had taken refuge.  He was sitting at the bar, sipping a cold beer.  The teargas round was not the usual anti-personnel canister, but round designed to pierce walls in barricade situations.  Sanchez was hit in the head and died instantly.  Some believe he was intentionally targeted.  Others believe he was just unlucky.

As the prominent Chicana poet Alurista observed after the fact, “The police called it a people's riot; the people called it a police riot.”

A Federal Attorney brought charges against the police officer that fired the fatal round at Sanchez, but they were dropped after President Richard Nixon fired him.

Tensions in L.A.  remained high.  Over the following year there were numerous demonstrations and school walk-outs.  Arrests were common and beatings of Chicano suspects routine.  The offices of the Chicano Moratorium were marked for harassment. In November 9 activists were arrested as they left the Moratorium office.  By December it was closed.

Demonstrations continued in Los Angeles and around the West, but the Chicano Moratorium faded away over the next year or two, most of its leaders joining the ranks of La Raza and other groups.

Eventually Laguna Park, site of the rally, was re-named by the city for Rubén Salazar.  The United States Postal Service even included him in a 2005 set of stamps honoring American journalists.   But outside of L.A and the Latino community, Salazar is largely forgotten and the other dead sunk in greater anonymity.

Lest we believe that the tensions between the police and Latino residents is a thing of the distant past, the events of August 29, 1970 were echoed on May Day 2007 when a huge crowd of immigration reform marchers were attacked by the LAPD with rubber bullets, tear gas and batons.  Despite the orderly nature of the crowd, which was quite festive and included many children, police charged the rally inside McArthur Park because some on the edge had been blocking the street.  Dozens were injured.

And police once again seemed to specifically target the press who were documenting the abuse.  Sanjukta Paul, a female National Lawyers Guild observer, was severely beaten.  Reporters Christina Gonzalez of KTTV Fox 11 News, Pedro Sevcec of  Telemundo’s National Evening News, local CBS reporter Mark Coogan and his cameraman Carl Stein, Patricia Nazario of KPCC, KABC-TV reporter Sid Garcia, and Patti Ballaz, a camerawoman for KTTV were all injured by police.  Garcia was struck by a rubber bullet.

Despite this, footage of the attack made national news.  The city launched investigations and at least one high ranking officer was relieved of command.

But it’s funny—the more things change the more they stay the same.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sadly, Angrily Remembering Hurricane Katrina

Just another "recalcitrant defier of evacuation orders" according to Fox News.

Some anniversaries are just too painful.  This is one of them.  On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with the eye just east of New Orleans.  Winds had diminished and the storm had been downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 3 and there was some hope that the city and surrounding Parishes might be spared the destruction predicted earlier in the week.  Although wind damage was severe, a lot of folks breathed deeply after the brunt of the storm moved passed.
But the storm surge sent as much as 15 feet of water inland flooding the low lying coast from the Texas border to nearly Pensacola.  It pushed up the Mississippi and into Lake Pontchartrain.  Within a few hours the levy system protecting the city broke in several places and water inundated most of the city.  Especially hard hit were the low lying neighborhoods along the canals and directly under the levies, including the largely Black and impoverished 8th and 9th Wards.  By 11 p.m. Mayor Ray Nagin described the loss of life as significant with reports of bodies floating on the water throughout the city.
As horrible as the situation was, it was only the beginning.  Evacuation orders had encouraged many of those with vehicles to flee north.  But the highways were soon clogged and those late to leave were trapped.  No plans had been made for the hundreds of thousands of city residents without transportation, or the aged and ill.  The poor were essentially trapped in the city.  And as they drowned talking heads on television scolded them for not heeding the evacuation orders. 
The story of the immediate misery of the next few days has been told and retold, and is far too vast to be recounted here.  Suffice it to say the disaster unmasked incompetence at every level of government compounded by a blasé racism eager to blame the victims.  The response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), headed by political toadies and lickspittles, became a national scandal.  But it was the inevitable result of George W. Bush’s administration which had as its highest goal to prove that government is inherently incapable of managing things efficiently. 
The disaster created a diaspora.  Eighty percent of the New Orleans population fled.  Five years later less than half returned.  And much of the city, particularly the Black Wards away from the restored tourist areas, remains a waste land.
The youth group of my church, then known as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock spent a week there in July 2010, nearly five years after the storm, doing service projects.  They brought back video and photographic evidence of the distressing situation.  There will be work rebuilding and restoring homes in those districts for hundreds of youth groups for years to come.
When historians look back on the disaster and its long aftermath years from now, they may well conclude that this was the moment when the traditional cocky confidence of American exceptionalism bit the dust and the Empire began it precipitous decline.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The March for Jobs and Freedom At 50

The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom got early attention when hundreds of thousands once again jammed the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday.  They were motivated not by nostalgia, but by righteous anger that the hard fought gains Civil Rights Movement activists fought, bled, and died for are under concerted nation-wide attack by a nasty and resurgent Right Wing.  The crowd was also driven by greater-than-ever income inequality and the creation of a low wage economy as well as an uneasy sense that the high hopes ushered in by the election of Barack Obama have been thwarted.
A parade of dignitaries, activist leaders, and celebrity entertainers including Civil Rights veteran and gun control activist Tony Benett spoke to the crowd.  The highlight was a fiery speech by Congressman John Lewis, the last survivor among the 1963 speakers.  
Unlike that long ago summer afternoon, the TV networks did not disrupt their schedules for live coverage.  Cable network attention ranged from a continuous live streaming from C-Span, to fairly comprehensive coverage on MSNBC anchored by Melissa Harris-Perry and Ed Schultz, being virtually ignored and attacked on Fox News.
Still, the event did create greater than usual coverage of any protest actions.  Predictably, however, it was mainly cast in the light as a celebration of the original march’s most famous speaker, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. who has been cast at the sainted hero of non-violence who single-handedly won equal rights.  Clips of his famous speech ran longer than sanitized sound bites from the modern speakers.
This year, some slight attention was paid to one of the most neglected figures of the original march, Bayard Rustin, the Quaker pacifist who was the principle nut-and-bolts organizer of the ’63 event.  Rustin, who was also Gay, was tapped by President Obama to receive a belated and posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Other key figures in the original march, however, remain largely ignored and forgotten.
Like a lot of people back in ’63 I was glued to the television for the beginning-to-end coverage provided by CBS News.  I was a 14 year old in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the time.  I was both thrilled and awestruck.  Listening to Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech literally changed my life.
The march originally was the brainchild of an elder of both the Labor and Civil Rights movements.  A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and of the Negro American Labor Council as well as a Vice President of the AFL-CIO modeled his call for a march on Washington on a similar event he had planned back in 1941 to force President Franklin D. Roosevelt to open up employment in the burgeoning defense industry to Blacks.  Just the threat of thousands of Negros descending on the Capital had been enough to cause the President to establish the Committee on Fair Employment Practice and bar discriminatory hiring in the defense industry.  Randolph wanted to bring similar pressure on President John F. Kennedy and Congress to move on stalled Civil Rights legislation, but also to bring up new issues of jobs and economic opportunity that had been overshadowed by the tumultuous battle for civil rights in the South. 
Randolph brought together the leaders of all of the largest national Civil Rights organizations including James Farmer, President of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); John Lewis, President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Roy Wilkins, President of the  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, President of the National Urban League; and Dr. King, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to form a coalition to sponsor the march.  It was no small feat because of turf wars, ideological differences, and egos.
In addition Randolph sought support from the Labor movement, most significantly from Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW).  The White dominated craft unions of the AFL, however, were notable for their absence. 
Bayard Rustin of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, an early forerunner of the Freedom Rides that was meant to test a Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel, was tapped to coordinate volunteers and logistics, recruit marchers from across the country and attend to all of the other details of the march while Randolph pulled together political, labor and religious support for the march. 
Other than being a star speaker that day King was not heavily involved in the planning or management of the event. He even left the details of mobilizing SCLC supporters to his aides.
As word spread, it became apparent that the march was going to turn into the largest event of its kind in history.  The media began to pay attention.  On the day of the march, buses poured into the city from sleepy Mississippi towns and from gritty industrial hubs like Detroit and Chicago.  Trains from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were jammed.  Thousands of local Washington residents swelled the throng. 
Organizers put the crowd at more than 300,000.  The National Park Service, in charge because the speakers’ platform was erected at the Lincoln Memorial, said 200,000.  Whatever was the case, crowds filled the Mall far passed the Washington Monument.  About 80% of the marchers were Black, the rest mainly white.  Marchers included many celebrities including actors like Sidney Poitier, Harry Bellefonte, and Charlton Heston—yes that Charlton Heston. 
It was a Wednesday afternoon but the three major broadcast networks broke away from their usual programming of afternoon soap operas to cover the swelling crowd and speeches live. 
Marian Anderson, who had sung on the same steps at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt after she was denied use of the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in 1939, opened the program with the National Anthem.  Several other performers took to the stage over the course of the program, perhaps most notably Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Mahalia Jackson. 
The Catholic Archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle led the invocation.  Other religious leaders on the program included Dr. Eugene Blake on behalf of the Protestant National Council of Churches and two leading Rabbis. 
After Randolph’s opening remarks each of the major civil rights leaders took the stage in turn. Floyd McKissick had to read the remarks of CORE’s James Farmer, who was in a Louisiana jail. The youngest leader, John Lewis of the militant SNCC, excoriated the Kennedy Administration for not acting to protect Civil Rights workers who were under regular and violent attack across the South.  Randolph and others who were trying to flatter and coax the President into action forced Lewis to strike the most inflammatory portions of his speech, but what was left was still plenty critical. 
Slain NAACP organizer Medgar Evers’s wife Myrlie was on the announced program to lead a Tribute to Negro Women, but did not appear.  In fact several prominent female figures in the Movement were either not invited or had their requests to be added to the program rejected by Randolph.  In the end the only woman to speak was jazz singer Josephine Baker who wore her World War II Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d'honneur. 
It all led up the last major address—the highly anticipated speech of Dr. King.  If civil rights veterans knew what to expect from the notoriously eloquent leader, millions of Americans viewing at home were in for an eye opening experience.  The speech, built to the thundering crescendo:
Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
The nation, or most of, it was awestruck and impressed.  That speech, along with the continued televised violence against Blacks struggling for equal access to public accommodation and the vote, helped set the stage for the major Civil Rights legislation enacted in the next three years. 
Today, on the actual anniversary of the march, President Obama will mark the occasion with his own speech delivered from the same Lincoln Memorial steps.  One of the most gifted orators in Presidential history, I am sure that his remarks will be by turns poignant, moving, and stirring.  His admirers will be thrilled and the Right Wing hate machine will be geared up into full attack mode.
But however noble his speech, and perhaps even his deepest personal ideas, the President is presiding over the greatest usurpation of privacy in the nation’s history and the erection of a permanent security state that seems as much interested in monitoring and crushing domestic dissent as it is with any terrorist threat. 
He is also said to be ready to launch yet another military adventure as soon as Thursday—a supposedly “limited” two day air attack on Syria for allegedly using poison gas on civilians in the bloody on going civil war there.  It is not hard to imagine what his fellow recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize might have to say about that.