Allison Kilkenny | The Nation

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

The Global Austerity Resistance Continues

Protesters march against government austerity measures in Madrid, March 10, 2013. (Reuters/Sergio Perez)

Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Spain and Greece this week in response to ongoing budget cuts and high unemployment. In Spain, unemployment has passed the 5 million mark for the first time since records began—attracting widespread criticism over the conservative government’s austerity plans. Similarly, Greece, which has served as a laboratory for austerity enthusiasts, has suffered mass poverty, unemployment and suicide since severe budget cuts were implemented by the government.

“Poverty, unemployment, suicides. Enough is enough,” was the slogan chanted on Syntagma square by some 1,500 Greek demonstrators non-affiliated with political parties who were mobilized through social media. The demonstration ended when police shot tear gas at protesters—a police tactic also used during the anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens when the debt crisis began in late 2009.

Earlier this month, three people in central Greece killed themselves on the same day, and analysts said there is a correlation between the rising rates and three years of pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions that have pushed many people into poverty. According to the Greek Reporter:

There has been a sharp rise in the number of suicides in Greece since the beginning of the crisis in 2009, with official sources putting the figure at over 3,100 from the start of 2009 to August 2012, though experts say that deaths by suicide are often not documented as such because of the social stigma attached to them.

On Saturday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras promised that there would be “no more austerity measures” as international creditors prolonged an audit of crisis reforms.

“There will be no more austerity measures,” Samaras said in a televised speech to his conservative party’s political committee.

“And as soon as growth sets in, relief measures will slowly begin,” Samaras said.

But he noted that Greece’s ailing economy was “out of intensive care, not out of the hospital.”

However, it seems unlikely Samaras will have the last word on budget cuts, and auditors have made it clear they expect to see an increase in privatization plans. Under the bailout conditions adopted last year, Greece needs to cut public sector workers by 25,000 in 2013 and a total of 150,000 by the end of 2015.

In Spain, the Madrid protest ended when police fired tear gas at protesters and arrested forty-five people, including nine minors. Reportedly, forty people were injured during the protest, and police claim they found four firebombs in a backpack abandoned on a street, in addition to twenty-two firecrackers, five flares and a stick from two minors near Madrid’s main railway station.

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The AP reports that rallies were organized in Madrid and sixty other cities by 150 organizations, including trade unions representing the construction, car and television industries as well as police and health services. Police estimated some 20,000 people marched in Barcelona, but authorities did not have figures for a large rally held in Madrid.

Protesters marched to the Spanish parliament in opposition to tax hikes, spending cuts, high unemployment and alleged corruption. At the tail end of the demonstrations, young protesters threw bar chairs into a road and burned garbage containers.

At the beginning of the month, many thousands of demonstrators held marches in more than twenty cities in Portugal to protest against austerity measures. Tens of thousands filled a Lisbon boulevard during the protests and headed to the finance ministry carrying placards that read, “Screw the troika, we want our lives back.” The troika is a slang term for the three organizations which have the most power over debt-ridden countries’ financial futures: the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

Protesters can be heard in the video below singing a song linked to a 1974 popular uprising known as the Carnation Revolution—named because no shots were fired when the population started descending the streets to celebrate the end of Marcello Caetano’s reign; instead protesters placed carnation flowers into the muzzles of rifles and on the uniforms of the army.

Portugal is expected to suffer a third straight year of recession in 2013, and the overall jobless rate has grown to a record 17.6 percent—of which young people are a particularly devastated demographic with unemployment close to 40 percent.

It’s time to reclaim labor rights as an American ideal, John Nichols writes.

Strike Debt Declares Healthcare Emergency: It's a Matter of 'Life or Debt'

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators protest against rising national student debt in New York, April 25, 2012. (Reuters/Andrew Burton)

Strike Debt, one of the offshoot groups of Occupy Wall Street, has planned a week of action March 16–23 in response to what it calls a “healthcare emergency.” A majority of personal bankruptcies in the United States are linked to medical bills, with 75 percent of people declaring bankruptcy even though they have health insurance.

“These debts are literally killing patients, students, providers and communities,” Strike Debt states at its website. “They deepen the already entrenched inequalities that divide races, classes and genders. Our healthcare system doesn’t make us well; it prolongs our illnesses in the name of profit.”

While it remains unclear what the group specifically has planned—the page suggests supporters “stay tuned for updates”—Strike Debt does promise to make a “big announcement in March,” and provides a list of activism suggestions for supporters, including protesting closed community hospitals, private insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and/or engaging in creative direct action.

San Francisco General Hospital recently provided just one example of the ripple effect of medical debt when it declared a $40.8 million budget shortfall in the end of February partially as a result of unpaid medical bills and ballooning employee costs:

General Hospital serves 1,500 patients daily and is the only trauma center between The City and Palo Alto. It also serves many low-income and elderly patients who rely on Medi-Cal and Medicare.

In the past, hospitals charged Medi-Cal and Medicare a fee for services rendered to their beneficiaries. Reliance on a new “managed care” model has resulted in lower charges, but also has brought in $8.2 million less than budgeted.

And budget figures show that “bad debt,” or situations where a patient simply cannot pay for the care he or she received, is skyrocketing. The hospital allotted some $58 million for bad debt, but it has been stuck with nearly $91 million in unpaid medical bills.

“We’re funding wards for which we’re not being given money to fund and keep open,” said Dr. Edward Chow of the Health Commission.

Budget cuts significantly hurt the hospital after the health department anticipated receiving up to $16.2 million for mental health care costs, but the money now seems unlikely to be delivered.

Strike Debt has already bought and abolished a large amount of medical debt that the group says will “provide real relief to thousands of people who need it,” though “it is only crumbs in light of the 70 million who still owe money on medical bills.”

To date, the anti-debt movement has raised over $564,000, which Strike Debt says has been used to abolish $11,293,338 of debt—primarily relief for individuals crushed by medical bills.

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In November, Strike Debt held a telethon and variety show in support of the Rolling Jubilee, a system to buy debt for pennies on the dollar, and abolish it. At the time, the group hoped to raise $50,000 in order to purchase and eliminate around $1 million in debt, but they actually ended up exceeding that goal.

While Strike Debt has been undeniably successful in generating support and raising cash in order to eliminate pockets of debt, as Salon’s Natasha Lennard points out, its efforts have not yet made a significant dent in the national or even the New York City–wide picture. It would take massive resistance on par with the Canadian students’ tuition hike protests to shift the national dialogue away from deficit chatter to debt relief.

Such a movement might seem impossible right now, but student debt has tripled in the past three years, and since most student loan debt is government-backed, the bubble-burst won’t resemble the mortgage crisis. There’s no incentive for the government or investors to rescue students, since unending debt equals unending profits for powerful players. Given no other option, mass student resistance doesn’t seem as unlikely an outcome as it might have a few years ago.

But in the short term, Strike Debt might have an easier time generating widescale support by focusing on medical debt, which affects far more Americans—not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, since students get sick and fall into medical debt, too. Good health is the bedrock of all other success—academic and otherwise. If individuals can’t afford access to decent medical care, they can’t go on to flourish as students, workers or citizens.

It’s time to tax financial transactions! Read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s take.

The Weird Blend of Apolitical Denial and Shameless Propaganda at the Oscars

Oscar host Seth MacFarlane speaks on stage at the 85th Academy Awards. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Well, it was a weird, weird Oscars. Seth MacFarlane hosted the awards ceremony, so as expected there was a deluge of sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, some (most?) of which fell painfully flat. Also as expected, the ceremony dragged on for an eternity in a parade of self-congratulatory dribble about how the Academy is really concerned about encouraging diversity—look! they recruited youngins from the outside world to carry the awards!—while the Academy remains nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male, and nearly all the films nominated were made by white men, starring white casts.

For a community that prides itself on being edgy liberal outsiders ahead of the curve when it comes to social justice—remember George Clooney’s unbearably smug acceptance speech that credited Hollywood for every single meaningful social gain from the civil rights movement to LGBT rights?—this year’s Oscars swung the pendulum from strangely apolitical to the polar opposite when it peddled propaganda.

There was no mention of any kind of armed conflict. Nothing. No mention of uprisings or wars, no mention of drone strikes. The room had a strange numb quality to it. There was no 2003 Michael Moore moment when the director was practically booed off stage for criticizing President Bush and the Iraq invasion. Actually, this year, there was no mention of politics of any kind, except when the first lady bizarrely showed up surrounded by military service personnel in dress uniform.

She declared of the Best Picture nominees, “They reminded us that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and fight hard enough and find the courage within ourselves.” Of course, the nominees included Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, two propaganda films widely criticized for manipulating true events, and in the case of the former, outright lying by suggesting torture led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Having the first lady—and by extension, the White House—present an award to a pool that included propaganda films was, at best, creepy.

Meanwhile, those who did win awards raved about the collective effort of filmmaking, but there was almost no mention that hundreds of technicians who worked on the film Life of Pi were protesting the ceremony. As the stars walked the red carpet, several hundred people congregated outside the Dolby theater in Los Angeles demanding better treatment of workers.

When the visual effects team behind Life of Pi attempted to draw attention to Rhythm & Hues’s plight during their acceptance speech, they were cut off by the band as the speech had exceeded the stipulated time limit. 

The protest was organized by ex- and current employees of the bankrupt Life of Pi visual effects house Rhythm & Hues to bring attention to the company’s recent Chapter 11 financial difficulties, which resulted in over 250 employees being axed without pay:

VFX artist Dickie Payne, whose work includes Titanic and Seaquest DSV, was particularly scathing. It isn’t as though VFX employees in Los Angeles can easily relocate, he said. In addition to the problem of uprooting from a community when you have children and other ties, there are immigration restrictions. 

Tiffany Wallace, attending in support of her partner David Dang, a freelance VFX artist and grassroots organizer, exhorted marchers over a bullhorn: “We need to stand united as workers, and as people who know our work is valuable.”

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It’s all rather par for the course that the Oscars is a white-centric, Western-oriented affair, but this year felt even further removed from the reality facing millions of individuals every day. Artists are supposed to force people from their comfort zones and make them confront sometimes painful truths. Some films (5 Broken Cameras, How to Survive a Plague, to name a few) did that and were nominated for their efforts, though they didn’t win.

Banality and jingoism were rewarded this year, as were sexism and racism. I mean, even the marketing this year was stupid. An Academy Awards for men? As opposed to what? With a 77 percent male Academy membership, every year is a men’s Oscars.

Read Roane Carey’s take on two Oscar-nominated films that shed light on Israel and Palestine.

Thousands of Climate Change Activists Gather in Washington for 'Forward On Climate' Rally


An estimated 40,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on Sunday for the Forward on Climate Rally. Environmentalist groups 350.org and the Sierra Club participated in the rally and subsequent march to the White House to urge President Obama to take action against climate change and reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

The event appeared to divide activists into two camps: those who see Obama as an ally with whom they simply need to plead with often and diligently enough so perhaps the president will yield to their demands, and those who see their roles as dissidents who need to force Obama’s hand by participating in blockades and other forms of direct action.

Tar Sands Blockade, a group of residents and climate justice organizers who use nonviolent direct action in an attempt to halt the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, addressed concerns that 350.org and Sierra Club are simply opportunists unwilling to get their hands dirty utilizing strategies like direct action.

“350 has backed us up a lot,” @KXLBlockade tweeted after the march. “Sierra club is who you should be tweeting at.”

On the Tar Sands Blockade website, activists preparing for the DC rally stated, “The fight against Keystone XL is about much more than asking a few privileged leaders to do the right thing. It’s about community resistance and resilience. It’s about traditionally marginalized people standing up to build a better future.”

The Sierra Club only recently dipped its toes in the direct action pool when Executive Director Michael Brune posted a statement that appeared to embrace more radical measures to halt KXL and force politicians to address the climate change emergency:

“If you could do it nonstop, it would take you six days to walk from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond to President Barack Obama’s White House. For the Sierra Club, that journey has taken much longer. For 120 years, we have remained committed to using every ‘lawful means’… Now, for the first time in our history, we are prepared to go further,” said Brune in a written statement.

Brune quickly made good on his word when he, along with McKibben and about fifty others, were arrested last week protesting KXL in front of the White House.

“President Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children. Today, we are asking him to use that pen to to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and ensure that this dirty, dangerous export pipeline will never be built,” Brune said on Sunday.

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During the rally, 350.org founder Bill McKibben said, “For twenty-five years our government has basically ignored the climate crisis. Now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work.” He added, “We shouldn’t have to be here—science should have decided our course long ago. But it takes a movement to stand up to all that money.”

Former White House green jobs adviser Van Jones told the crowd and the absent Obama, “This will define your legacy, Mr. President.” 

“This president has the power to achieve the single biggest carbon reduction ever, by holding our biggest carbon polluters—dirty power plants—accountable for what they dump into the air,” said Jones, a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of Rebuild the Dream. “Cleaning up this pollution and using more clean energy will provide jobs to thousands of Americans, save families real money when it comes to electricity bills and, most important, will make a real difference in our health and the health of our children.”

Simultaneous rallies were held in cities all across the country, including in Los Angeles where a coalition of more than ninety groups organized one of the largest climate change rallies ever staged in the city, according to the Sierra Club.

Read George Zornick’s report on the Sierra Club’s first participation in civil disobidience, a precursor to Sunday’s monster rally.

Seniors and Vets to Crash ‘Fix the Debt’ Party Hosted by Honeywell CEO

Seniors and disabled veterans are planning today to crash a “Fix the Debt” party in New Hampshire hosted by Honeywell CEO David Cote. Fix the Debt, an organization comprised of many of the country’s richest and most powerful CEOs, pushes the case for cutting Social Security and Medicare as well as lowering the corporate income tax rate.

As such, the organization—and subsequent party—caught the eye of the anti–corporate tax-dodging group US Uncut and the new group Flip the Debt.

“We wouldn’t have to make these cuts, and we could invest in putting America back to work, if only [corporations] pay their fair share. So we say, rather than ‘fix the debt,’ let’s ‘flip the debt’ and put responsibility where it belongs. Hey 1%! Pay your damn taxes,” Flip the Debt states on its website.

The two tax accountability groups have organized the protest, which will include seniors and disabled vets sharing their stories about how they survive on programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, then handing over their Social Security checks to Cote. They will demand that Cote, a spokesperson for Fix the Debt, answer the question: Why are you demanding that we reduce the deficit by cutting critical social programs, when your own company practices tax-dodging that has contributed millions to the national debt?

Despite reporting substantial pretax US profits to shareholders, Honeywell paid no federal income taxes in 2009 or 2010 (or more precisely, paid less than zero), according to Citizens for Tax Justice, a nonprofit advocacy think tank.

Cote and Honeywell have a history of making lavish profits while taking advantage of a tax system that permits corporations to bleed the country dry of revenue.

Over the last three years, Honeywell received more than $2.7 billion in federal defense contracts and reported more than $2.5 billion in U.S. pre-tax profits. And yet thanks to corporate deductions, tax subsidies, and loopholes, Honeywell has claimed $377 million in federal tax refunds during this period.

Honeywell CEO David Cote has been a fixture at Congressional hearings calling for a territorial tax system for corporations. He is also Vice-Chair of the Business Roundtable, a club for big business CEOs that has called for an extension of all the Bush tax cuts, including those for millionaires and billionaires, as well as the tax cuts on unearned income from capital gains and dividends. These combined measures would add $1.5 trillion to the debt over the next ten years.

This isn’t about “fixing the debt.” This is about rigging the game so big business and CEOs can still make oodles of cash while the 99 percent shoulder the burden of corporate welfare.

“The ‘Fix the Debt’ Campaign is the latest incarnation of a multi-decade effort by wealthy Wall Street investors to slash social support programs under the pretense of cutting the deficit,” the groups state in a press release. “Meanwhile, many of the very same corporations and their CEOs have contributes mightily to the national debt.

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“Honeywell has paid an average effective tax rate of negative 14.8 percent from 2009–11, even as they receive taxpayer money as the thirty-fifth largest federal contractor. Now CEO David Cote is demanding we sacrifice our nation’s most popular and effective anti-poverty programs. The average Social Security check is under $1,400 per month. By comparison, when CEO David Cote retires, he is expected to receive a monthly mention of nearly $500,000.”

The groups go on to claim that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy tax-dodging global corporations—many of them members of Fix the Debt—have cost the US Treasury $2.3 trillion, an amount that exceeds the $1.6 trillion Congress now seeks to cut from the deficit.

Check out this week’s issue of The Nation for more on the US’s regressive tax system.

Occupiers Arrive in Court Over a Year After Their Boston Encampment Was Raided

(Flickr/Tim Pierce)

A common cause for grievance among some older activists of the sixties variety is that “the kids these days” don’t protest. They’re too apathetic and jaded. They’re too isolated and detached from community. And while that may be true in certain cases, the kids these days are also aware of the omnipresent police state that constantly hovers just above their crowns, waiting to strike down with the wrath of God if they stray even slightly past the boundaries of acceptable dissent.

That reminder sometimes comes in spectacular displays like in Oakland when police nearly killed veteran Scott Olson with a projectile during a October 2011 Occupy Oakland protest, or the violent November 15 raid of Zuccotti in Manhattan when police barred press from entering the park to witness their tactics.

More often, the reminder is a slow bureaucratic suffocation when arrested protesters languish in the legal system for months at a time—sometimes years and years—awaiting their time in court. This process is too dull for most media outlets to devote resources too, and most protesters can’t afford the time and legal fees necessary to remain stuck in limbo. 

Protesters needn’t be stuck in jail during this glacial-speed process in order for it to be an impediment in their daily lives. Even being “free,” but being required to return to court for hearing dates over and over is a highly disruptive factor in people’s lives. Court dates mean taking time off from work or finding transportation to court. It means the state can call upon them whenever, and they have to drop everything, or else.

Five Occupy Boston defendants appeared in Boston Municipal Court on Monday—finally—following their arrests over a year ago (fourteen months, to be exact) after an October 2011 raid on the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square. They were among 140 protesters charged with trespassing and unlawful assembly. (Only five defendents from the October raid have a date, the rest don't even know the co-defendents. Meanwhile, defendents from the final December 2011 raid haven't even had a court date set up yet).

Andrea Hill, Ashley Brewer, Brianne Milder, Tammi Arford and Kerry McDonald claim their constitutional rights of assembly and free speech were violated during the eviction.

“Arresting them and charging them with criminal conduct for exercising those rights was plainly unlawful and in violation of their constitutional rights to assembly and free speech under the First Amendment,” stated a Friday press release from the National Lawyers Guild, the association from which attorneys have volunteered to represent the protesters.

If the judge in the case grants a dismissal, there won’t be a trial, but if the judge denies the motion to dismiss, the protesters go to trail, which means more time surrendered to the state.

The agonizingly slow court system becomes all the more apparently absurd when one considers the level of “crime” in most Occupy cases: “trespassing and unlawful assembly,” in the case of Occupy Boston, on land that conservancy documents say was designed to be a space for the people to assemble. The First Amendment means nothing when the state simply throws up a thousand barriers (e.g., permit requirements, public-private partnerships that slowly strip the “public” from “public space”) preventing protesters from actually assembling and speaking freely.

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Boston’s Commonwealth offered the protesters a deal after their arrests: all trespassing charges would be turned to civil infractions and a $50 fee would be issued—another indication that protesters weren’t really a threat to begin with. Dangerous criminals aren’t freed after being charged $50 fines. Most protesters took that deal, understandably given the deeply unpleasant experience of being arrested in the first place and then slowly processed.

However, twenty-four people refused to take the deal, claiming that their rights were violated, and they wanted to go to court and present their case in front of a judge.

Theoretically, that’s how the legal system is supposed to work. The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution sets forth rights related to criminal prosecutions, including the right to a speedy trial. “Speedy” is an ambiguous term, but in Barker v. Wingo (1972) the Supreme Court laid down a four-part case-by-case balancing test to determine what “speedy” actually means, and the court determined a delay of a year or more from the date on which the speedy trial right “attaches”—meaning the date of arrest or indictment, whichever occurs first—is “presumptively prejudicial.” 

Meaning, you don’t just have the right to a trial, you have the right for it not to be a slow-ass trial. The court has found clever ways to circumvent that, including not counting “the trial” as the process leading up to said trial, which is usually longer than the process of the trial itself. There’s also the police tactic of “detaining” people without charging them with anything, a shady method that some protesters can escape by simply asking officers, “Am I free to go?” and then walking away if the officer replies in the affirmative. But often the police can snatch up protesters for any made-up reason, up to and including blocking foot traffic, a seriously laughable “crime” for anyone familiar with Manhattan sidewalks. Then those protesters are at the mercy of the slow courts.

It’s worth remembering that the Occupy Boston Five have been awaiting their day in court for over a year, and yet the perpetrators of the crimes protested by these activists—meaning major Wall Street firms—haven’t had to suffer the inefficiencies of the courts. No CEO has been showing up for court dates over the past year, having to reschedule his meetings and pick-up times for his kids. No CEO faces any charges for their very real crimes.

Truly, we have a very weird, inverted “justice” system.

Who is Occupy? Read Allison Kilkenny's analysis

Co-Author of New Occupy Study: Media Misled by Harping on Household Salaries

An Occupy protester rallies in Union Square, March 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

A new study by sociologists at the City University of New York on the Occupy Wall Street movement recently captured the media’s attention, mostly due to the researchers reporting that more than a third of the people who participated in the NYC chapter of the movement came from households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more.

Study shows that the Occupy Wall Street kids were ‘the children of the elite’. What a surprise,” a Telegraph columnist sighed. ”Many Occupy protesters well-off, white and educated, study says,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The Gothamist opted for a slightly more diplomatic headline: “Study: Occupy Movement Well-Off, Educated, But Still Stung By Bad Economy”.

Setting aside the fact that this was a damned if they do, damned if they don’t moment for Occupy—they’re either poor, dirty hippies or the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite, but never, ever Americans exercising their First Amendment rights—the narrative constructed by the media simply isn’t true.

Even one of the study’s co-authors takes issue with how the media is interpreting the study.

Professor Stephanie Luce emphasizes emphatically that the data represent household income—not individual income, an important distinction to keep in mind because the data skews higher than real income for Occupiers.

“The problem was we did not end up reporting on individual income. About a quarter of our respondents earned less than $15,000 a year, but since many of them were students, we weren’t sure if that would be misleading and if that would be a level of detail that would take a lot to go into describing those households,” says Luce.

“We ended up just reporting on household data because it seemed easiest to compare with New York City data. Now that all of the media is picking up on that one particular [detail], I am wishing that we had reported individual income too, and made that distinction clear.”

The study does attempt to be nuanced in its report of the Occupy movement in other areas, including the fact that nearly a third of the protesters had been laid off or lost a job. A similar number said they had more than $1,000 in credit card or student loan debt.

Another important under-reported detail is that the sampling of 700 people at a May Day rally in 2012 was an atypical Occupy event that attracted a diverse crowd, including many activists from labor groups (there is overlap between Occupy and labor, but the event also attracted individuals who were unaffiliated with Occupy).

“We know from our data that a lot of the people there were union members or academics, people with professional occupations. In that sense, I wasn’t surprised by the education levels and the income levels because those are the people who can come to that kind of rally at four o’clock,” Luce says.

It would have been interesting to contrast the May Day findings with the population of the Zuccotti Park camp, but unfortunately the CUNY professors (Luce co-authored the report with Professors Ruth Milkman and Penny Lewis) weren’t able to secure their grant until after the camp had been evicted by the NYPD.

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“Our initial plan was to interview people at Zuccotti and to do a three-level study: a survey at Zuccotti Park itself, a survey at a large rally, and then surveys of individual activists. So we didn’t get to survey Zuccotti, but the truth is, even by November, the people in the park itself—a lot of the activists weren’t even staying there at that point, and in the middle of the day there were lots of tourists.”

Luce agrees with critics of the study who point out that the May Day rally was an atypical event.

“I agree with concerns that a survey on September 29 would have looked really different than October 29. In that respect, May Day was one particular rally and a lot was done for logistical reasons when we got the funding, but we thought it was reflective of the people who support Occupy.”

Luce expressed dismay that the media have seized upon the $100,000 annual salary detail of the study—partly because shaping the narrative around that finding is misleading, but also because, in Luce’s opinion, that shouldn’t be the biggest takeaway.

“What we saw a lot in our interviews was a real intersection of experienced organizers, who had been organizing around these issues for at least five or ten years, bringing their perspectives on inequality and neoliberalism and corporatization and organizing perspectives, and that was intersected with a much larger population of people who were directly impacted by inequality or the recession—the people who had student debts, who had professional training but can’t find steady work. The survey reflects the larger population of people with whom Occupy resonated, and then I think our interviews reflect that this is not just a flash-in-the-pan movement—this did not just spring out of no where, but there’s lots of years of organizing and experience that led up to this moment.”

Most importantly, according to Luce, is that the study shows the concerns of protesters aren’t going away any time soon.

“The takeaway for me is that this is part of an arch of social movement activity that built on previous work, and is building into continuing work.”

For more on dubious media coverage of popular protest, read Allison Kilkenny’s post on the presidential inauguration.

One in Six Philadelphia Public Schools Is Targeted For Closure

Philadelphia students mobilize outside school district headquarters. (Flickr)

During one of many anti-austerity protests last summer, more than 1,000 people rallied to oppose the Philadelphia District’s plans to “transform schools,” a pleasant euphemism generally meaning school closures and mass layoffs. The Philly district planned to lay off 2,700 blue-collar workers, including every member of the SEIU 32BJ Local 1201, the city school union representing bus assistants, cleaners, mechanics, and other workers.

In late July, the School Reform Commission scrapped those plans and approved a contract that avoided layoffs, but led to worker salary reductions (employees had between $5 and $45 deducted each week from their pay). Additionally, the union nixed two planned wage increases—a 3 percent jump set for earlier in the year and another raise that would have kicked in the first of this year.

Despite the union’s concession, the district still has a $282 million deficit, and the Philadelphia School District’s plan to save money is closing one in six public schools in the area, a move that activists, clergy and some officials say will disproportionately affect students of colors, as well as poor and disabled students.

The US Department of Education recently confirmed with activist group Action United that it will be investigating its claim that the “district adopted a school closing and consolidation plan…that has a disparate, adverse impact on African American and Hispanic students, and on students with disabilities.”


According to an analysis completed by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS)—an umbrella group made up of the district teachers’ union, Action United, and several other community organizations—81 percent of the roughly 15,000 students who would be affected by this year’s planned closings and mergers are African American.

District-wide, 56 percent of students are African American.

Most of the schools that would close—24—have populations that are more than 90 percent African American. Just three of the schools have white populations higher than the district average.

The group also found that most of the schools targeted also have district higher-than-average populations of poor and disabled students.

Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and acceptability in public schools, alleges the district is using fuzzy math:

It’s worth remembering that in the spring, the School Reform Commission authorized an unprecedented expansion of more than 5,000 charter seats at a projected cost of $139 million over five years—at a time when Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen threatened that schools may not even open in September. Among the expansions were a 1,400-student high school for Performing Arts Charter, even though the District already has four performing arts high schools drawing from a citywide population. Charters with school performance index figures that ranked them among the worst in the District received five-year renewals and expansions. In fact, of the 26 charters up for renewal last spring, the SRC voted to close just three, and two are appealing.

Whatever your opinion may be of charters, there’s no question that the District has failed to explain its inconsistent approach of allowing charter expansion without regard to expense or academic quality while insisting on draconian and widespread sacrifice among District schools. This despite the fact that many of the District schools targeted for closure outperform some of the charters that the SRC renewed and expanded last spring.

The numbers don’t add up on the alleged $28 million in savings the District says it will garner. District officials have not disclosed a full accounting of the transition costs and other expenses associated with closing schools—something that should be of grave concern given what we know about school-closing expenses.

The district has always claimed that students will be relocated to schools on par or better than the ones they currently attend, but PCAPS claims that after closings, strong schools that remain open rarely have room for more students, leaving limited opportunity for children to move into better situations and making educational refugees out of former students.

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Last week, the Philadelphia City Council passed a non-binding resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on public school closings in the city, a move Philly.com calls “largely ceremonial” because the council cannot block any moves the School Reform Commission makes.

Anne Gemmell, political director of umbrella advocacy group “Fight for Philly,” says the closings are unacceptable.

“We don’t believe for a second that it is fair all these communities, all these vulnerable communities, will be plunged into chaos for less than 1 percent savings,” she said. “That is absurd.”

Activists from Philadelphia are part of a national movement pushing back against school closings and turnarounds on civil rights grounds. Read more at TheNation.com’s Extra Credit blog.

MSNBC Incorrectly Reports No Permits Were Requested to Protest Obama's Inauguration

Members of the Arc of Justice Coalition protest outside the inaugural ceremonies. (Flickr/Elvert Barnes)

Updated 10:12 am

During MSNBC’s day-long marathon coverage of President Obama’s second inauguration, in which exciting details such as the first lady’s bangs and outfits were discussed, host Rachel Maddow at one point remarked that no protest permits had been requested.

The statement was significant for a couple reasons. One, it created the impression that President Obama was re-elected with unified glee. Why, no one even bothered to request a permit to protest! Because Obama is perfect! No one could even think of a reason to raise any grievances!

Second, the statement simply isn’t true. Five groups secured permits to protest. In fact, here’s a NBC affiliate interviewing a spokeswoman about those very permits:

“They have to apply for a permit and give us what time they are going to be here, what they’re going to do and about how many people they have, but as I said, we accommodate them,” National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said. “It’s their right to be here.”

Three of the five protest groups gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue. Protesters included members from the spectacularly insane group The Westboro Baptist Church, but also the ANSWER coalition, which speaks out for the unemployed and demands jobs and justice.

“The least among us, as Dr. King would say, to agitate, educate and mobilize from the bottom, to have those voices for those who are still struggling, those who Dr. King would be standing for,” said Eugene Puryear, of ANSWER. 

The ANSWER coalition will gather at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House, but the protest is bigger than Obama, ANSWER said. 

“It’s to send a message to all politicians, not just the president but the senators, the congressmen, all the big business people that these are the problems, the problems of ordinary working people, that we need to be tackling,” Puryear said.

Reform America Created Equal also applied for a permit to hold an anti-choice demonstration at the US Naval Memorial, while about 100 people from the Elaine Wooten Organization demonstrated about environmental issues and complexities of Native American treaty obligations. Another 100 or so protesters from the Arc of Justice Coalition rallied with speeches and music for the First Amendment at Meridian Hill.

Another protest—perhaps one of the other “smaller” protests that was issued a permit, as The Washington Times had it—took place outside an exit gate from the inauguration day festivities. A group of protesters lay across a street on Capitol Hill to protest Obama’s controversial use of drone strikes abroad.

Here is other footage of a drone protest march that occurred on the day of the inauguration:

The process of obtaining a permit is filled with obstacles for protest groups, and even when secured, activists are oftentimes quarantined far away from the subject of the protest so as to be rendered almost entirely ineffective. It makes sense Maddow would repeat the “no one requested a permit to protest” line given that no protesters were visible in the crowds lining the streets as the president’s motorcade crept along the parade route.

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Mostly, that’s because certain spaces along the parade route are exclusively reserved for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a reality challenged by ANSWER in federal court. A week before the inauguration, a federal judge handed a win to activists challenging those regulations, although US District Senior Judge Paul Friedman did not address the underlying allegations that the regulations represented a violation of the right to assemble under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

And while the ruling favored ANSWER, it did not come in time to affect inauguration activities on January 21. A lead attorney for ANSWER, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, said the activists would continue with the planned demonstration…to the extend that they’d be able.

The federal government defendants “created a situation where they’re allowing a private political party to determine who may be speaking and who may be visible and whose voices may be heard along Pennsylvania Avenue,” Verheyden-Hilliard said, referring to the parade route.

Certainly, to a degree, limiting the areas where activists can protest is a matter of security, but protest regulations also create the illusion of unified consent. The image of thrilled Obama supporters lining the streets, united as they cheer their president into a second term, is an extremely helpful PR tool for the administration, and the mainstream news outlets dutifully aimed their cameras at that display—and no where else—for the entirety of the inauguration. The presence of hundreds of dissenting voices nearby never even made it onto their radars.


Update: To illustrate my point about how difficult it is for protest groups to sometimes receive permits, Zeke Johnson, a director at Amnesty International USA, contacted me to report that Amnesty was denied a permit for a January 11 protest at the Capitol and White House against Guantanamo because of the inauguration.

For talk of social justice inside the inaugural gates, read John Nichols's analysis of President Obama's speech.

NYC Bus Strike Kicks Off to Fight Privatization of Yellow Buses

School buses lounge near the Coney Island boardwalk, July 8, 2007. (Flickr/Jan-Erik Finnberg)

The president of the union representing New York City school bus drivers announced earlier this week that a citywide strike will be starting Wednesday morning. This will be the first time in more than three decades that NYC’s largest union for school bus drivers will strike.

Michael Cordiello of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union said that more than 8,000 bus drivers and matrons—workers who make sure children get on and off buses safely—would take part in the strike in response to a dispute over job protections in any new bus company contracts for the bus routes.

The city wants to cut transportation costs and has put bus contracts with private bus companies up for bid. The union is criticizing lack of employee protections, fearing current drivers may lose their jobs once contracts expire in June.

Writing for Alternet, Molly Knefel explains how the privatization effort is part of a push for widespread austerity:

The dispute is simple—it’s about saving money. As New York City schools chancellor David Walcott has noted, the city has operated its school-bus contracts without any “significant competitive bidding” for 33 years. During that time, something called “Employment Protection Provisions” ensured job security for senior workers, even if the city changed bus companies—meaning that experienced drivers were rehired year after year. But the contracts have gotten too pricey; more than twice what Los Angeles pays per student—and the city now plans to offer the contracts to the “lowest responsible bidder.” The union representing the school-bus drivers, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, is asking for Employment Protection Provisions to be included in the new contract to protect workers from losing their jobs to newer, cheaper labor. But due to a state court of appeals decision last year, in which the court ruled to exclude the provisions based on competitive bidding laws, the city says its hands are tied.

Part of the significance of this dispute is that while the importance of job protections for current bus drivers is difficult to quantify, the city’s need to reduce the budget is as plain and clear as the budget numbers themselves. In the face of the millions of dollars the city stands to save with cheaper contracts, why should it matter if, for example, 22,500 special-needs students find themselves with brand-new bus drivers one day?

It matters because how we treat those who care for certain children reflects how we value those children. It creates a system in which workers entrusted to be responsible for a child’s safety are utterly replaceable in the name of protecting the bottom line.

Even though under the city’s strike contingency plans, students, parents, or guardians would receive free MetroCards for mass transit, some politicians immediately rushed to condemn the strike and bus drivers.

Fully embracing the false paradigm that school contract disputes pit parents against education employees, Democratic NYC Council member David G. Greenfield tweeted, “School bus strike is 1st major test for NYC mayoral candidates. Whose side will they take: parents or unions?”

Greenfield then goes on to use the example of special needs children—not to illustrate the importance of protecting workers’ jobs as Knefel did in the above passage—but to depict striking drivers as being selfish.

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When a parent responded to Greenfield that she is a parent and supporter of the striking drivers, he tweeted, “That’ very nice. I have dozens of parents of special needs children who have no way to get their kids to school b/c of strike,” and “the victims are the children. Especially the special needs children - many of whom won’t be able to get to school.”

Valdes-Dapena, the mother of a 10-year-old, told the AP, “I’m concerned about what happens if the drivers lose their seniority, if they’re less experienced. You can teach someone to drive a school bus, but what happens when all hell breaks loose behind them?” She added it takes experience to deal with situations like bus breakdowns, medical emergencies of kids with special needs or traffic, when kids get frustrated or unruly. “The drivers we have now—I’d trust them with my own life,” she said.

Any time a labor dispute like this arises, leadership from the top-down rushes to blame selfish workers for putting children in jeopardy rather than addressing issues of job security, privatization and how children are far more likely to suffer under budget cuts and teacher layoffs, while trying to learn in hostile education environments monitored by overworked, under-paid educators, than they are to suffer during a hiatus to settle a labor dispute.

Mayor Bloomberg perfectly demonstrated the “think of the children!” concern trolling when he remarked, “We hope that the union will reconsider its irresponsible and misguided decision to jeopardize our students’ education.” (Note: This concern for the children was missing when Bloomberg cut millions from after school programs.)

Herein lies the false choice. It’s not the children versus the bus drivers, but a choice between living wages and jobs with dignity, and the forces of privatization threatening workers everywhere.

For more on less-than-stellar job standards, check out Josh Eidelson’s post on Walmart’s “benefits” for veterans.

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